For Immediate Release
March 23, 1999

Contact: Tom MacKenzie
404/679-7291

U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE PROPOSES ENDANGERED STATUS FOR ALABAMA STURGEON

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week is proposing that the Alabama sturgeon, a freshwater fish that once inhabited extensive portions of the Mobile River system, be listed as endangered on the federal list of endangered and threatened species. A species is endangered when it is at risk of becoming extinct in the foreseeable future.

"The Alabama sturgeon was once so abundant that it was caught and sold commercially," said the Service's Southeast Regional Director, Sam D. Hamilton. "The fish inhabited some 1,000 miles of the Mobile River system in Alabama, that included the Black Warrior, Tombigbee, Alabama, Coosa, Tallapoosa, Mobile, Tensaw, and Cahaba Rivers as well as stretches of the Tombigbee River in Mississippi. Since then, it has disappeared from approximately 85 percent of its historic range in the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers and their major tributaries in Mississippi and Alabama. Since 1985, all confirmed captures have been restricted to a short, free-flowing reach of the Alabama River below Millers Ferry and Claiborne Locks and Dams in Clarke, Monroe, and Wilcox Counties, Alabama.

During the past 2 years the Service has worked with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Alabama-Tombigbee Rivers Coalition, a group of private businesses and industries with economic interests in these rivers, and other partners, to begin conservation efforts to increase the numbers of Alabama sturgeon. As a part of these efforts, the Marion State Fish Hatchery has been modified to maintain and propagate Alabama sturgeon and efforts to collect brood stock have been initiated. Biologists also are seeking to identify important habitats for the species in the Alabama River and to develop strategies for protection and management of this habitat.

Because of the research accomplished through the cooperative efforts put forward by these organizations, the Service does not anticipate that the protection of the Alabama sturgeon, under the Act, is likely to have any effect on current activities, including dredging for navigation, on the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers, Hamilton said.

The decline of the sturgeon is believed to be due to over-fishing, the loss and fragmentation of habitat as a result of navigation-related development, and degradation of water quality. Today, the fish's population has been reduced to the point where, if no specific conservation measures are taken, its chances for recovery are slim. The numbers of surviving sturgeon may be too low for natural reproduction to restore a sustainable population. The Alabama sturgeon is long and slender, growing to about 30 inches in length, and is a golden- yellow color. A mature fish weighs 2-3 pounds. The head is broad and flattened, shovel-like at the snout. Boney plates cover the head, back and sides. The body narrows abruptly to the rear to form a narrow stalk between body and tail. The upper lobe of the tail fin is elongated and ends in a long filament.

The Service previously proposed the Alabama sturgeon for endangered status on June 15, 1993. Because the Service could not find information showing that the species existed, it withdrew the proposal on December 15, 1994. Since then, however, six fish have been caught by state, federal, and commercial and recreational fishermen events that confirm its continued existence.

The species, nonetheless, is among the rarest of North American fish. For the past two years professional fisheries biologists have attempted to catch these sturgeon and have interviewed numerous commercial and recreational fishermen encountered on the Alabama river asking for reports of any sturgeon captures. In spite of these vigorous efforts, only three fish two males and one female have been collected to date.

The Service's proposal to list the Alabama sturgeon will be published on Friday, Mar. 26, 1999, in the Federal Register. This action puts into motion a thorough review of the status of the Alabama sturgeon, during which the agency will determine whether or not endangered status is appropriate. After considering comments received from the public, the Service will make a final determination in a year.

If the Service determines that endangered status is appropriate for the Alabama sturgeon, the species will benefit from those protections and recovery actions assured under the Endangered Species Act. Species listed as endangered are protected from direct and indirect "take," which includes killing, harming, or harassing.

Federal agencies whose actions may affect an endangered species must consult with the Service to ensure activities do not further endanger the species. In addition, the Service would develop a recovery plan to formalize on-going conservation efforts, and to identify and implement other actions to restore populations to a level when extinction would no longer be a threat.

The Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have examined river activities and potential conflicts that might arise from a listing of the Alabama sturgeon. This study has resulted in a joint determination by the Service and the Corps that current activities in the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers, including the annual navigation channel maintenance dredging programs will have no impact on the sturgeon and will not need to be eliminated, modified or altered should the species be listed.

Hamilton noted that these two waterways already contain four listed species the threatened inflated heelsplitter mussel and gulf sturgeon and the endangered heavy pigtoe and southern pigtoe mussels.

These species share similar threats with the Alabama sturgeon and their presence has not resulted in any use restrictions of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers.

The Service is inviting public comments on its proposal to list the Alabama sturgeon as an endangered species. Comments may be directed to the Field Supervisor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 6578 Dogwood View Parkway, Jackson, MS, 39213, and will be accepted through May 24, 1999. Requests for a public hearing must be submitted to the same address by May 9, 1999. For more information, contact the address above or call (601) 965-4900.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprised of more than 500 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries and 78 Ecological Services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

Release #: R99-028


1999 News Releases

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