A federal agency is proposing to designate hundreds of miles of rivers and other water bodies across the Northeast as critical habitats for an endangered species. The proposal includes a large portion of the Hudson River to protect a species beloved to local environmental organizations — the Atlantic sturgeon.
NOAA Fisheries’ proposal to designate critical habitat across several rivers and water bodies includes the Hudson River from the mouth into New York City harbor to the Troy Lock and Dam. When a species is listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the agency is required to determine critical habitat for the species to aid in its recovery. NOAA Fisheries listed the Atlantic sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act in 2012. Jennifer Goebel is spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She says a critical habitat must have certain physical and biological features to allow for sturgeon to spawn and juvenile sturgeon to develop, known as recruitment.
“The features that we’re looking at here in this case, when we’re looking at spawning and recruitment, are the hard bottom substrate. When sturgeon lay eggs their eggs are sticky and they have to find something hard to sick onto at the bottom of the river. So that’s one of the things,” says Goebel. “Another thing is the salinity zones because eggs can only withstand a certain parts per thousand level of salinity. So we need to make sure that they have in these spawning sites the right levels of salinity.”
Two other features considered are water depth and barriers to passage.
“These fish have to have the ability to go from the river mouth to the spawning site,” says Goebel. “So they have to have a certain depth and they have to have passage, free passage to these areas.”
All of these features make up the critical habitat. The proposal notes that Atlantic sturgeon spawning may occur at several sites in the Hudson River, with Hyde Park considered a likely area. Paul Gallay is president of Riverkeeper.
“Designating the critical habitat for the sturgeon’s recovery is essential if you’re ever going to get the fish into healthy populations and off the endangered species list,” Gallay says. “Big step forward, frees up federal funding for habitat restoration and other means of getting the iconic Hudson River Atlantic sturgeon back into health.”
NOAA Fisheries also proposed critical habitat designations in the Connecticut River, from the Holyoke Dam downstream to where the main stem river discharges at its mouth into Long Island Sound; and the Housatonic River from the Derby Dam downstream also to where the main stem discharges at its mouth into Long Island Sound.
Overfishing was one of the primary factors that led to the widespread decline in the abundance of Atlantic sturgeon, which were valued particularly for their roe, or eggs, in high demand as caviar.
“They used to so plentiful that they were called Albany beef, and they provided meals to many, many people,” Greene says. “Now, for many years they’ve been so endangered that you absolutely can’t take sturgeon at all. As a matter of fact, Clearwater has to be very careful if we cast a net to be sure that there’s no baby sturgeon in the nets that we cast to do education programs.”
That’s Manna Jo Greene, environmental action director for Clearwater, who welcomes the proposed critical habitat designation.
“It’s been a longstanding goal of ours to see that this species is restored to its full vibrancy and to protect all of the Hudson River ecosystem,” says Greene.
Goebel says recreational activities such as boating and fishing likely would not affect salinity, water depth, or the river’s bottom. However, agencies looking to undertake a federally-permitted activity in the river, such as dredging, would face an added layer of approval.
“So any activity that could impact the habitat, the hard bottom or the salinity zones or the water depth or the water quality, that kind of thing, now has to have an additional level of scrutiny as it goes through the permitting process,” Goebel says.
The public comment period is open until September 1.