NOAA Considering Critical Areas for Atlantic Sturgeon in the Che - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

UPDATED: NOAA Considering Critical Areas for Atlantic Sturgeon in the Chesapeake Bay

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VIENNA, Md.-  The Chesapeake Bay and the Nanticoke River were once packed with Atlantic Sturgeon but in the 1890s that started to decline.  In 1996 eventually the fishery was shut altogether.  The species was declared endangered.  Now they are trying to save it by creating critical habitats.

Sturgeon are a rare sight in our rivers, but you know when you see one.  The bony fish almost looks like something you'd load into a piece of artillery.  But despite that hardy look, the species is in great danger.  NOAA listed the Atlantic Sturgeon on the endangered species list in 2012.  They hadn't been seen in the Nanticoke for some time, until recently.

Two years ago a female Atlantic Sturgeon was spotted with eggs in the Marshyhope Creek, a tributary of the Nanticoke River.  As a result, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science are asking NOAA to turn part of this river into critical areas.

NOAA has already proposed several areas up and down the Atlantic coast and parts of the Chesapeake as critical habitats to protect the fish during spawning.

Eileen Sobeck with NOAA says, "Sturgeon need this habitat to recover and these designations give us an important additional conservation tool."

But some people, including Dorchester County Councilman Tom Bradshaw have their concerns.

"The way I read it and understand it is that if they think this fish is in this river and is spawning, then any kind of activity, commercial and recreational fishing, marine traffic, marine construction has to cease for as long as they are in there spawning," said Bradshaw.

Bradshaw believes that could be a detriment to the economy.  He says the council was not notified of the potential regulations, and says a compromise needs to be found.

"Talking to the scientists that put this out, and the watermen, bringing them all to the table, saying this is what we see, the watermen saying this is what we see, what common ground can we find on this?"

While the Nanticoke River has been proposed by the DNR, it has not been proposed by NOAA just yet.  Their official proposals include the Susquehanna, Rappahanock, York, Mattaponi, and Pamunkey rivers, and the James River.  It remains to be seen if those will become official critical areas.

UPDATE: NOAA says the designation of a critical area would not have the effects that Councilman Bradshaw is concerned about. 

In an email to WBOC, NOAA says that if a critical area is created, federally funded projects could potentially be put on hold if it is determined they would affect the environment the sturgeon need.  Modifications could also be made to those projects to eliminate or minimize the potential effects to the fish.  They go on to say that the critical area would have no affect on activities that are not federally funded, and further, any activity that did not affect the sturgeon before they were put on the endangered species list in 2012 would still be permitted.

NOAA also provided a description of the habitat needed for the fish.

- Hard bottom substrate in low salinity waters for eggs and early life states

- Transitional salinity zones for juvenile foraging and growth

- Water depth and absence of physical barriers to fish can move between upriver spawning areas and coastal waters, where they feed and migrate as adults

- Water quality -- temperature and oxygen levels that support spawning, growth, and survival.

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