BALTIMORE - The Atlantic sturgeon, a prehistoric fish whose once bountiful populations were depleted by anglers seeking its coveted caviar, has been declared an endangered species by federal officials, a decision that could lead to moves to protect its habitats along the East Coast.
The National Marine Fisheries Service ruling covers the New York Bight, which includes the Delaware and Hudson rivers, and the Chesapeake, Carolina and South Atlantic populations. The sturgeon population in the Gulf of Maine was also declared threatened.
The service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said a recent study indicated that the loss of only a few adult female sturgeons in the Delaware River as a result of vessel strikes would hinder recovery of the population, and the populations in the New York Bight and Chesapeake Bay are at risk of extinction.
NOAA said it is currently considering information on sturgeon populations in order to designate critical habitat.
Environmental groups have sought to stop dredging of the Delaware River, citing the harm it could cause to the sturgeon population.
"We simply have too few to spare for a make-work boondoggle like the Delaware River deepening," said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, after the decision was announced.
Jane Davenport, senior attorney at the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said the group would work to ensure sturgeon are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
"As of today, federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as private parties like shipping companies, are on notice that each and every Atlantic sturgeon in the Delaware River will be protected by the ESA's wide-ranging prohibitions against killing or harming it or degrading its habitat," Davenport said.
Ed Voigt, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers' Philadelphia office, said if funding is approved for continued dredging, the Corps will continue to work with the Fisheries Service to ensure sturgeons are not affected. Voigt said that could involve a number of factors, including the timing of dredging or modification of dredging techniques.
Federal officials said that before 1890 an estimated 180,000 female sturgeon spawned in the Delaware River. The Delaware is believed to have less than 300 sturgeon today.
About 20,000 adult females inhabited the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries before 1890. Only one known spawning population of about 300 remains in the James River.
In the Hudson, more than 6,000 females were estimated to spawn each year, compared to about 600 now, according to NOAA.
Sturgeon, which can grow up to 15 feet long, weigh hundreds of pounds and live a century, were a staple of early settlers. However, populations were depleted in the late 19th century as demand grew for their caviar. Now, the greatest threats to the Atlantic sturgeon are pollution, climate change and the propellers of cargo ships that can kill the lumbering fish.
Brad Sewell, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which petitioned for the declaration, said that despite a decade-old ban on fishing, other threats have proved too challenging. He said the decision gives the fish that survived the Ice Age "a fighting chance to live on into the 21st century."