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Atlantic Sturgeon: Delaware Riverkeeper Network & NRDC v. Dept of Commerce and NMFS

Delaware Riverkeeper Network , et al. v. United States Dep’t of Commerce, et al., No. 14-cv-00434 (D.D.C.)

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit in federal district court in the District of Columbia challenging the National Marine Fisheries Service’s failure to take steps required by law to protect the ancient, and endangered, Atlantic Sturgeon. When NMFS listed 5 distinct populations of Atlantic Sturgeon as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in February 2012, it was required by law to designate “critical habitat” important for the species’ survival and recovery that becomes subject to an additional layer of protection. Critical habitat designation will help protect the waters where Atlantic sturgeon feed, seek cover, and reproduce, thereby aiding the species’ survival and recovery. Unfortunately, NMFS  failed to meet the statutory deadlines for designating critical habitat, forcing DRN and NRDC to compel compliance with the law through legal action.

In March 2014, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) brought a law suit to compel the federal government to comply with its obligation to designate critical habitat for the Atlantic Sturgeon.

December 2014, DRN and NRDC settled our legal action with NMFS agreeing to publish a proposed rule designating critical habitat by November 30, 2015, with a final rule due a year later.

UPDATE: NMFS sought and received an extension to issue the proposed rule designating Atlantic sturgeon critical habitat by May 31, 2016, with a final rule due a year later.

UPDATE 2017-08-17: As a result of litigation brought by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network in partnership with NRDC, the National Marine Fisheries Service has designated critical habitat for the Delaware River and other populations of Atlantic Sturgeon.  NMFS sought multiple extensions of the originally agreed upon deadline (the result of extensive settlement negotiations that were granted by the court despite our opposition).  The National Marine Fisheries Service published its final rule on August 17, 2017 designating critical habitat for endangered distinct population segments of Atlantic Sturgeon. Designating critical habitat requires federal agencies to consult with NOAA before funding or engaging in activities in the designated habitat. The final rule encompasses the Delaware River at the crossing of the Trenton-Morrisville Route 1 Toll Bridge downstream to the Delaware Bay. The Delaware River population is the most at risk in the nation with less than 300 spawning adults of this genetically unique line. This portion of the river, as well as the estuary, is vital to the species’ recovery as it functions as both spawning grounds and as a migration corridor to and from the Atlantic Sturgeon’s spawning grounds.

Read the Final Rule issued by the NMFS

DRN will continue to monitor the proposed rule to ensure that activities like dredging and blasting projects – which can destroy benthic feeding areas, disrupt spawning migrations, and harm rock substrates that are necessary for egg adhesion – can longer adversely affect Atlantic sturgeon critical habitat.