An Atlantic sturgeon PHOTO COURTESY OF NOAA

Sturgeon habitat in focus



ELLSWORTH — Federal fisheries managers have taken a significant step toward promoting the recovery of the nation’s depleted Atlantic sturgeon resource.

Last week, NOAA Fisheries designated a vast area along the Atlantic coastline as critical habitat for the Atlantic sturgeon. The critical habitat designation will require federal agencies to consult NOAA Fisheries if they operate or fund activities that may affect designated critical habitat in more than 3,968 miles of important coastal river habitat from Maine to Florida.

Atlantic sturgeon was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2012.

The ESA requires that NOAA Fisheries designate critical habitat when a species is listed as threatened or endangered. Critical habitat is defined as specific areas within the geographical areas that are occupied by the species contain physical or biological features essential to the conservation of that species and may require special management considerations.

The designation of critical habitat does not include any new restrictions or management measures for recreational or commercial fishing operations and does not create any new preserves or refuges. But when a federal agency funds, authorizes or carries out activities that may affect critical habitat, it must work with NOAA Fisheries to avoid or minimize potential impacts to critical habitat.

Atlantic sturgeon were harvested heavily in the 20th century, particularly for their roe to be used for caviar. Overfishing led to a decline in abundance of Atlantic sturgeon, and in 1998, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission issued a coastwide moratorium on the harvest of Atlantic sturgeon in state waters. NOAA Fisheries followed with a similar moratorium in federal waters.