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Atlantic Sturgeon

AVERTED:  Major Threat to Delaware River Atlantic Sturgeon & All Five Distinct Population Segments Across the Nation:

The morning of February 20, 2018, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network learned of a new, major threat to Atlantic Sturgeon posed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  The comment period on the proposal would close at the end of the day on the 20th. In short, the Corps wanted to dump sand and rock into a deep hole in the Delaware Bay that has been identified by scientists as critical for sturgeon foraging, growth and supporting good health that can support species reproduction.  The Delaware River population (a genetically unique line) as well as all five distinct population segments of sturgeon nationwide are known to need this site for habitat and foraging.  All 5 distinct population segments nationwide, as well as our Delaware River population, are listed under the Endangered Species Act.  The Army Corps needed permitting from the state of Delaware.    The Delaware Riverkeeper Network headed up the opposition to approval of this project.  In response to the action alert DRN sent out to our members we secured 75 comments urging the state of Delaware to reject the project, or at the very least to extend the public comment period and to hold public hearings.  In response to the strong show of opposition and the facts and information we helped bring to light, the Army Corps withdrew their permit application, stopping the project in its tracks!  Thank you to all of you who responded to our call for help on behalf of the Atlantic Sturgeon.

medium_Atlantic Sturgeon 2009 delaware yoy credit matt fisher with DNREC.jpg
Photo of juvenile
Delaware River
Atlantic Sturgeon
Taken by Scientist
Matt Fisher

Background & Information

There Delaware Riverkeeper has long been active in supporting designation of the Delaware River population of Atlantic Sturgeon as endangered and brought legal action to ensure the National Marine Fisheries Serviced prioritized the designation of critical habitat critical for the species’ protection.

When the Atlantic Sturgeon of the U.S. were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2012, Distinct Population Segments (DPS) of Atlantic Sturgeon were identified.  Four DPS’ were listed as endangered (New York Bight which includes the Delaware River population, Chesapeake Bay, Carolina, South Atlantic) and the fifth DPS was been listed as threatened (Gulf of Maine).  (You can learn more about the various DPS listings here.) 

 The Atlantic sturgeon has a storied history in the Delaware River watershed.  This prehistoric fish was once an important resource for local Native American tribes with the Delaware River supporting the largest population of Atlantic Sturgeon in North America. Atlantic sturgeon are a vital part of the River’s ecosystem – past, present and future.

NMFS estimates that historically there were around 180,000 spawning females in the Delaware River population of Atlantic Sturgeon.  As a result, the Delaware River gained the title of “caviar capital of North America”. Seventy five percent of the 1890-1899 sturgeon harvest originated in the watershed and approximately 3,189,555 pounds of sturgeon were harvested over the course of just five years in the 1890’s. (Cobb, J. The Sturgeon Fishery of the Delaware River and Bay, Report of Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries (1899).) This frenzied over-harvesting quickly led to a drastic collapse of the River’s Atlantic Sturgeon population.

Habitat loss from dredging, blasting, and other deepening activities; saltwater intrusion; water pollution and poor water quality; the loss of river bottom habitat needed for spawning from coverage of silt from the coal industry; impingement and entrainment; boat and propeller strikes; and fisheries bycatch have all contributed to the Atlantic sturgeon’s continued decline and inability to recover from the historic overharvesting.  As a result of these devastating and ongoing impacts it is estimated that there are less than 300 spawning adults left in the Delaware River population of Atlantic sturgeon.

All of the above-mentioned harms and threats continue, and some have worsened, with new threats coming on line regularly.

The New York Bight Distinct Population Segment (DPS) is unique among Atlantic sturgeon, and the Delaware River Atlantic sturgeon are unique among the New York Bight. The Delaware River population of Atlantic sturgeon contains a genetically distinct haplotype unique to the Delaware River. Unfortunately, this unique population is also in the worst shape; despite a decades-long moratorium on fishing, the population has been largely unable to recover because of the myriad of harmful activities and circumstances discussed above.

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network recognizes the importance of protecting this ancient species, and has been intimately involved in its listing and the development of critical habitat. In October of 2010, DRN submitted comments on NMFS’s recommendation for endangered status, and in April and June of 2012 DRN wrote NMFS emphasizing the need to establish critical habitat and to protect the Atlantic sturgeon from the harms of the Delaware deepening project. In March of 2014 DRN filed suit against NMFS in order to secure priority establishment of critical habitat for Atlantic Sturgeon.  As the result of a legal settlement of the case, a critical habitat designation for the Delaware River was proposed and finalized, along with critical habitat for other DPS', in 2017

            The critical habitat designation for the Delaware River population of Atlantic sturgeon includes the Delaware River from the Route 1 Toll Bridge in Trenton downstream 137 river kilometers to Hope Creek, NJ. This portion of the river is vital to the Atlantic sturgeon’s recovery as it functions as both spawning grounds for Atlantic Sturgeon and as a migration corridor to and from the Atlantic sturgeon’s spawning grounds. This section of the Delaware Estuary contains the hard substrate, low salinity, and proper spring and fall temperatures necessary for successful spawning.  This section of River is also under past, present and increasing pressures harmful to Atlantic Sturgeon – including, but not limited to, advancement of the Rivers salt line caused by human activities which reduce the geographic scope of the spawning grounds available, dredging, in-river development, increased and ongoing pollution inputs, ship strikes and more.  The Delaware Riverkeeper Network had urged that the designation include the Delaware Bay, also critical for the species, but the final designation did not include this portion of the Delaware River system.

Recent Press:

N.J.'s most endangered fish just got a rescue line from feds, NJ.com, 08/17/2017

Supporting Documents