For Immediate Release
June 24, 1999

Contact: Vicki McCoy
404/679-7287

Statement from Paul Hartfield, Endangered Species Biologist
U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Atlanta

"Good Evening. My name is Paul Hartfield. I'm an Endangered Species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and I want to welcome all of you to this hearing tonight.

"The Alabama sturgeon is a small sturgeon that grows only to 2.5-3 lbs in weight and up to 30 inches in length. It does not migrate to the sea as many of the larger sturgeon species do, but spends its entire life in freshwater rivers and streams of the Mobile River Basin of Alabama and Mississippi. The Alabama sturgeon was historically reported from the Tensas, Alabama, Tombigbee, Black Warrior, Cahaba, Tallapoosa, and Coosa Rivers. Commercial fishery records from the late 1800's record the species in commercial abundance.

"Today the Alabama sturgeon has become one of the rarest fish in North America, with fewer than 10 Alabama sturgeon caught in the past decade despite concerted efforts to find and collect the species. The sturgeon has also disappeared from about 85% of its historic range. Recent collections of the fish have only come from about 130 miles of the lower Alabama River, downstream of Millers Ferry Lock and Dam.

"Let me say at the outset that since 1997, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ADCNR, and the Mobile District COE have been working together to locate and map sensitive habitats and aquatic communities in the Alabama River, and to use this information to assess and reduce potential channel maintenance conflicts. Our joint investigations since 1997 continue to support the conclusion that current river uses have little effect on the sturgeon. This supporting information to the White Paper is also a part of the administrative record of this listing proposal.

"The circumstances that led to the current status of the Alabama sturgeon began over a century ago. The sturgeons population decline was probably initiated by unrestricted harvesting beginning in the late 1800's. This was compounded in the following decades by the gradual development of the Basin's rivers for navigation. Navigation development significantly modified and changed extensive portions of river channel habitats, blocked migration routes, and fragmented and isolated sturgeon populations.

"Today, although the Alabama sturgeon has been protected from commercial and recreational fishing, and navigation development was essentially completed about three decades ago, incidents of capture of Alabama sturgeon have continued to diminish. This indicates declining population numbers, suggesting that the sturgeon has dropped below some minimum viable population size. In other words, it is believed that the primary threat to the Alabama sturgeon is that its numbers are currently too low for natural reproduction to offset natural mortality rates. If this is true, the sturgeon will inevitably become extinct. The little that we know of the sturgeon's life history indicate its vulnerability to depressed population numbers: the females are late maturing, requiring 5-7 years growth before first spawning, and individual mature sturgeon may not spawn for intervals of several years. This is further aggravated by natural variability of environmental conditions necessary for successful reproduction and recruitment (floods, droughts, etc.). Examples of other species that have had similar problems include the California condor, Florida panther, Mexican wolf, and red wolf.

"The Alabama sturgeon was initially proposed for endangered species status on June 15, 1993. Following an extensive comment period and two public hearings, this proposed rule was withdrawn on December 15, 1994, on the basis that there was insufficient information that the Alabama sturgeon continued to exist.

"Much has happened in the past 5 years, and most of those events have been positive for the sturgeon, the river, and the people of Alabama. I'd like to take a few minutes to briefly summarize some of these.

"Seven Alabama sturgeon have been captured since the Spring of 1995, documenting the continued survival of the species.

"Also since 1995, various industrial and business interests and state and federal agencies have been meeting to discuss how to deal with potential conflict and controversy over increasing numbers of endangered, threatened, and otherwise imperiled aquatic species in the waters of Alabama. Out of these discussions grew the Mobile River Basin Coalition, a group devoted to finding and promoting areas of agreement and consensus in environmental issues affecting the rivers of Alabama. The Coalition has produced an ecosystem recovery plan accepted by the Service, and many people are working together to implement this plan.

"In 1996, a sturgeon conservation plan was developed and implemented by the ADCNR, Service, COE, and Alabama-Tombigbee Rivers Coalition. Conservation efforts include developing life history and habitat information; capturing broodstock for population augmentation; construction of hatchery facilities for sturgeon propagation; and identifying and quantifying sturgeon habitat in the Alabama River.

"Since 1997, Alabama and Mississippi Congressional delegates have provided generous financial support for the implementation of sturgeon conservation efforts through the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We've learned a lot from our efforts to implement the conservation plan: we've caught four fish, learned how to keep them alive, feed them, treat their diseases, and induce spawning. We've done all of this with only four fish to work with, and have lost only one of these to disease. "We also learned a lot from the 1993 process to list the sturgeon under the Act. In late 1994, in response to public concerns, the Service and the Mobile District COE met to consider potential effects on activities in Alabama's waterways should the Alabama sturgeon be listed. We used the best available scientific information about the sturgeon and its habitat needs to conduct our analysis. Following this analysis, both agencies agreed that current activities in these rivers, including the annual navigation channel maintenance programs, would have no effect on the sturgeon and would not need to be eliminated, modified, or altered should the species be listed. These conclusions were summarized in a document referred to as the "White Paper", and are a part of the administrative record of this listing proposal.

"Since 1997, the endangered southern clubshell and heavy pigtoe mussels and the threatened inflated heelsplitter mussel have been discovered living in the Alabama River. These species have similar habitat requirements as the Alabama sturgeon: they require stable, riverine habitats and good water quality to survive. Their range encompasses the range of the sturgeon. Let me emphasize that the presence of these three species as well as the threatened Gulf sturgeon have had no adverse impact on navigation.

"Since 1997, we've used information from our investigations to expeditiously reauthorize channel maintenance programs for the Tombigbee/Black Warrior navigation channel and the Alabama River navigation channel without conflict or controversy.

"These are all positive events. They have come about because of improved communication and willingness to cooperate in assessments and planning efforts. Regardless of the outcome of the current proposal, it is in everyone's interest to build on these cooperative relationships. The objective of this proposed rule is not to stop human activities in the Alabama, Tombigbee, or any other River. It is to accommodate human activities, sensitive species, and the environment upon which we all depend. In the past 5 years we have shown that we can do this in Alabama and that the Endangered Species Act can work.

"We are here tonight because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has once again proposed endangered status for the Alabama sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act. We have also determined that critical habitat designation is not prudent due to a lack of benefit. If you have not received a copy of the Federal Register proposal outlining our reasons for these actions, there are copies available at the door. Tonight we are here to receive comments or suggestions from the public, other concerned governmental agencies, the scientific community, industry, or any other interested party concerning this proposed rule to list the Alabama sturgeon as an endangered species.

"We intend that any final action resulting from this proposal will be as accurate and as effective as possible. We are particularly interested in information concerning the range, distribution, and population size of the sturgeon; threats to the species, or lack thereof, or any other information to make this rule-making more complete.

"Thank you for your attention."

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Release #:R99-056

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