For Immediate Release
June 24, 1999

Contact: Vicki McCoy
404/679-7287

Questions and Answers
Proposed Listing of The Alabama Sturgeon

1. What is the Alabama sturgeon?

The Alabama sturgeon is a freshwater fish that was historically widespread in the Mobile River basin of Alabama and Mississippi. This fish is elongate and slender, growing to about 30 inches in length, and is a golden-yellow color. A mature Alabama sturgeon weights 2 to 3 pounds. The head is broad, and flattened shovel-like at the snout. Bony plates cover the head, back, and sides. The body narrows abruptly to the rear to form a narrow stalk between the body and tail. The upper lobe of the tail fin is elongated and ends in a long filament. The Alabama sturgeon was once so abundant that it was caught and sold commercially. It has now become one of the rarest fish in North America.

2. Is the Alabama sturgeon really a species?

The Alabama sturgeon was described in a peer reviewed journal in 1990. Its validity as a species was supported in detail in a 1996 peer reviewed article in a professional fisheries journal. The species is recognized by national scientific societies such as the American Society of Herpetologists and Ichthyologists, and by the American Fisheries Society. The Alabama sturgeon is considered a distinct species in books describing the fish fauna of Alabama and Mississippi. The Service is required to use the best available scientific information in its listing actions. The preponderance of evidence supports recognition of the Alabama sturgeon as a distinct species.

3. What is the Endangered Species Act?

The Act is a Federal law that recognizes and protects rare plants and animals that are endangered with extinction, or threatened with becoming endangered in the near future.

4. Will the Alabama sturgeon be listed under the Endangered Species Act?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has prepared a proposal to list the sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act. The proposal contains information about the sturgeon and its decline, and identifies current threats to the species continued existence. The proposal has been published in the Federal Register for public and scientific review. This publication began a review period during which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will accept any information or comments about the species and its status from interested parties or from State or Federal agencies. Following this review, the Service will consider all information received during the comment period before making a final decision. The final decision must be made and published in the Federal Register within 1 year of the publication date of the proposed rule.

5. Why is the Alabama sturgeon being proposed for protection under the Endangered Species Act?

The Alabama sturgeon has disappeared from about 85% of its historic range in the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers and their major tributaries in Alabama and Mississippi. The sturgeon’s decline began over a century ago as a result of historic episodes of over-fishing, navigation-related development, and water quality degradation. Today, the species is known to occur only in the main channel of the Alabama River below Millers Ferry Lock and Dam downstream to the mouth of the Tombigbee River. In addition to the dramatic decline in range, it currently appears that the numbers of Alabama sturgeon may be too low for natural reproduction to replace sturgeon lost to natural mortality. If this is the case, the Alabama sturgeon will eventually become extinct. Recent collection efforts support this hypothesis. For example, in the last 3 years professional fisheries biologists expended more than 4,000 man-hours trying to catch sturgeon. During this same time, commercial and recreational fishermen encountered on the river were interviewed and asked to report any captures of sturgeon. This intensive fishing effort by professional, commercial, and recreational fishermen in the Alabama River has resulted in the capture of only four Alabama sturgeon.

6. What has been done to improve the status of the Alabama sturgeon?

Over the past 3 years the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has assisted the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and other partners in efforts to increase the numbers of Alabama sturgeon. The Marion Fish Hatchery has been modified to maintain and propagate Alabama sturgeon, and broodstock collections have been ongoing. Only four fish (one mature male, one immature male, one female, one unsexed) have been collected despite considerable efforts (see above). Success of this program has been mixed. Much has been learned of this poorly known species: a diet has been developed, disease treatments have been successfully administered, water quality and holding conditions have been identified, methods to artificially induce spawning have been developed. However, a spring spawning attempt in 1999 was not only unsuccessful but also resulted in the death of the female Alabama sturgeon. Studies are also being conducted to identify important habitats for the species in the Alabama River, and to develop strategies for protection and management of these habitats.

7. Why is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposing to list the Alabama sturgeon now when intensive efforts are already underway to restore the fish?

The Endangered Species Act is a Federal law, and it is the Service’s responsibility to implement that law. The Endangered Species Act and its implementing regulations require the Service to list species as endangered under the Act if they are threatened with extinction in the foreseeable future, or as threatened if they are faced with becoming endangered in the foreseeable future. In 1993, the Service determined that the Alabama sturgeon qualified for consideration as an endangered species, but the proposed rule to list the species was withdrawn in 1994 due to insufficient evidence that the species continued to exist. Collections of Alabama sturgeon in 1995 proved that the species still survived in the Alabama River. In 1996, the sturgeon was once again made a candidate for protection under the Act. All information we have gathered since 1993 supports a conclusion that the Alabama sturgeon is threatened with extinction in the foreseeable future. The Service is required to make its decisions on the status of species in a timely fashion but we are doing so by working closely with all interested parties and being responsive to community concerns.

8. Will navigation or other uses of the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers be restricted if the Alabama sturgeon is listed under the Act?

No. Federal agencies are required to consider the effects of their activities on endangered and threatened species in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Activities identified that might harm listed species are usually modified to reduce impacts. The Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District (Corps), have examined river activities and potential conflicts that might arise from a listing of the Alabama sturgeon. In 1994, this resulted in a joint determination (a "White Paper") by the Service and the Corps that current activities in the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers, including the annual navigation channel maintenance dredging programs, would have "no effect" on the sturgeon and would not need to be eliminated, modified, or altered should the species be listed. In addition, these two waterways together 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 habitats with the Alabama sturgeon, and their presence has not resulted in any use restrictions of the Alabama or Tombigbee Rivers.

9. Is the White Paper included in the administrative record?

Yes. All documents used to produce the proposed rule are a part of the administrative record. These include the 1994 White Paper, which is cited twice in the listing proposal. In addition, much of the discussion in the proposed rule about dredging, flows, and mining is taken from the White Paper and/or more recent documents and studies regarding the White Paper. All of this information is a part of the administrative record of this listing action.

10. Would listing the sturgeon result in severe economic consequences to Alabama?

No.  During the 1993 comment period on the proposal to list the Alabama sturgeon, economists from Troy State University submitted an economic analysis of the economic effects of the action. Although the Service accepted the report as a part of our administrative record, we did not concur with the reports findings, nor do we now. The Troy State economic analysis is based on the assumption "...that navigation on the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers will be impossible under the conditions which will likely be imposed by the FWS if the proposed listing is finalized." The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for maintaining navigation on these rivers. In 1994 the Corps determined that should the sturgeon be listed, navigation maintenance would not be eliminated, modified, or altered. In documents and letters the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed with this determination. In 1998 and 1999, both agencies have affirmed this conclusion and have completed studies that support it. Navigation will not be affected by listing the Alabama sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act, therefore, the Troy State economic analysis is based on a faulty assumption and is inaccurate. Neither the Service, which is responsible for implementing the Act, nor the Corps, which is responsible for maintaining navigation, foresee any negative economic impact to waterway users in Alabama as a result of this listing.

11. If Congress provides funding for candidate conservation efforts for the sturgeon in the Fiscal Year 2000 budget, will this funding be lost if the sturgeon is listed?

No. During the past three years, Congress has earmarked funding in the Service’s budget for sturgeon conservation efforts being conducted by the Service and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. There has been concern expressed that any such funding allocated in the FY 2000 budget will be lost if the sturgeon is listed. A final listing decision for the Alabama sturgeon will not be made until March 2000. The Federal budget year begins in October 1999. Any candidate conservation funds committed to sturgeon conservation efforts will be used to continue the State’s conservation efforts, even if the sturgeon should become listed in March 2000.

12. Why is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not designating critical habitat?

Critical habitat designation directly affects only Federal agency actions. Implementing regulations for the Endangered Species Act allow the Service to not designate critical habitat if doing so is detrimental to the species, or if there is no benefit to such designation. The Service has determined that the range of the sturgeon is currently so limited that critical habitat designation offers no additional protection for the species beyond that which results from its listing under the Act. Therefore, designation of critical habitat provides no additional benefit to the species at this time.

13. Will fishing or other recreational uses of the rivers be restricted if the Alabama sturgeon is listed as an endangered species?

No. Alabama State law currently requires the immediate release of Alabama sturgeon caught by commercial or recreational fishermen. Should the sturgeon become listed, no additional restrictions would occur.

14. Where can I get more information about the Alabama sturgeon and the Endangered Species Act?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service home page (http://www.fws.gov) contains additional information on the Endangered Species Act and the listing and recovery processes. The Jackson, Mississippi, Field Office of the Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for recommending listing and recovery actions in the States of Alabama and Mississippi. Contact Paul Hartfield (601/965-4900, ext. 25) for a copy of the proposed rule to list the species, or for additional information on the Alabama sturgeon or the listing process. The Service’s Daphne, Alabama, Field Office can also answer questions concerning the Endangered Species Act and other federal regulations (334/441-5181).

15. How many endangered and threatened species are in Alabama?

There are 93 species federally listed as endangered or threatened in Alabama. These include 5 mammals, 4 birds, 10 reptiles and amphibians, one shrimp, 13 fishes, 34 mussels, 8 aquatic snails, and 19 plants.

16. Why are there so many endangered and threatened species in the State of Alabama?

Alabama is blessed with a tremendous diversity of habitats and a corresponding high diversity of plant and animal species. Habitat loss is the principal cause of species imperilment in Alabama. More than half of Alabama’s endangered and threatened species are from river and stream habitats. The State’s rivers and streams have been widely modified to meet human needs for transportation, water supply, electricity production, irrigation, and flood control. Streams that weren’t modified have been affected to varying degrees by waste disposal, bank erosion, and by land use runoff containing pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and domestic wastewater. Today, most of Alabama’s endangered aquatic species survive in watersheds where modifications and runoff from land use activities have been minimal or reduced.

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Release #:R99-058

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