Environmentalists threaten to sue New Jersey and Delaware if they don’t take action to protect Atlantic sturgeon from bycatch

The endangered Atlantic sturgeon once thrived in the Philly region, but only 250 are left in the Delaware River. Advocates plan to sue under the Endangered Species Act.

Listen 1:10
A man prepares to toss a 70-pound Atlantic sturgeon into the James River

In this Oct. 8, 2010 file photo, a man prepares to toss a 70-pound Atlantic sturgeon into the James River near Charles City, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

From Philly and the Pa. suburbs to South Jersey and Delaware, what would you like WHYY News to cover? Let us know!

Atlantic sturgeon have been around for 70 million years — predating the dinosaurs. These monumental fish with shark-like fins even survived the Chicxulub asteroid, which caused the great extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous Period.

But the species that once thrived in the Philadelphia region’s waterways has become endangered, threatened by habitat loss, dams, poor water quality and vessel strikes. In the Delaware River, only about 250 estimated sturgeon remain, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Sturgeon are also caught in fishing nets and injured by boats during the commercial fishing of other types of fish such as striped bass and summer flounder.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network argues the region isn’t doing enough to protect the Atlantic sturgeon. The nonprofit is threatening to sue Delaware, New Jersey and New York under the Endangered Species Act for allegedly allowing the commercial fishing industry to kill the Atlantic sturgeon as bycatch.

“The accidental trapping and harm to the Atlantic Sturgeon could be taking place at numbers so significant that it is, in fact, placing in jeopardy the continuation of the Atlantic sturgeon population of the Delaware River,” said the organization’s Maya Van Rossum, “and may be a reason, or the reason, why ultimately the Atlantic sturgeon go extinct and are lost forever from the Earth, and for both present and future generations.”

The organization alleges that the three states have violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to obtain certain federal permits from NOAA Fisheries for fishing operations within state waters that include the sturgeon’s habitat, according to publicly available NOAA permit information. The riverkeepers say these permits are required when endangered species are unintentionally harmed during lawful activities (such as legally fishing unprotected species).

Those “incidental take” permits would not only ensure fisheries met requirements of the law, but also allow states to implement certain protections for the sturgeon and track how many fish are killed, Van Rossum said.

“At this point, the state hasn’t gotten the approvals from the federal government,” she said. “So, there’s no opportunity to change the operations in order to avoid the harm to the Atlantic Sturgeon. And there’s no requirement of monitoring to be able to determine how many sturgeon are, in fact, being harmed and to what degree they’re being harmed.”

She said that after filing Freedom of Information Act requests in all three states, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network received documentation proving sturgeon bycatch occurs, as well as transcripts of conversations in which the issue is acknowledged.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The New York York State Department of Environmental Conservation said the agency is aware of Delaware Riverkeeper’s letter of intent.

“DEC is committed to the protection and restoration of the Delaware River basin and all the species it supports,” a spokesperson said in an email.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection declined to comment. Officials in Delaware did not immediately respond to requests to comment.

Other states have pursued such permits, according to the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. North Carolina and Georgia have submitted applications for and received incidental take permits, while South Carolina’s is pending.

Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed new water quality standards that aim to protect sturgeon and other fish in a portion of the most populated parts of the Delaware River.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal