CHICAGO— Conservation groups sent a notice today of their intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to respond to a 2018 petition seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the lake sturgeon.
The lake sturgeon is an ancient fish species that lives primarily in the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River drainage. It has declined by roughly 99 percent over the past century because of overfishing, dams and pollution.
“Lake sturgeon are prehistoric survivors, but they need federal help if they’re going to outlast what we’ve done to them,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. “These behemoth fish are a bellwether for the health of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River. They need stronger protections for spawning rivers and other habitats to make sure they’re not lost forever to extinction.”
“The mighty lake sturgeon was the ancient ruler of thousands of river miles in the Ohio River basin, but today only a small remnant of that genetically distinct population remains, blocked by a dam, in approximately 46 miles of the East Fork White River,” said Gary Moody with Fishable Indiana Streams for Hoosiers. “It's practically a miracle that they still exist in that tiny range — they're not very resilient when their environment deteriorates, and their numbers are few. One big chemical spill, one bad drought, or some combination of factors could push Indiana’s lake sturgeon to extinction.”
"The lake sturgeon is one of Indiana's iconic aquatic species, found in Lake Michigan and the Ohio River and its tributaries including the lower White River,” said Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. “Overfishing, pollution and habitat degradation have caused the decline of this ancient fish to where it now requires additional protection to recover it to healthy populations."
Lake sturgeon can live for 100 years, grow more than 8 feet long and weigh up to 300 pounds. Overfishing, dam construction and water pollution have driven many populations toward the brink of extinction.
Lake sturgeon populations in Minnesota, Lake Superior, the Missouri River, Ohio River, Arkansas-White River and lower Mississippi River may qualify as endangered, while sturgeon in Lake Michigan and the upper Mississippi River basin may be threatened. In lakes Huron, Erie and Ontario, as well as the St. Lawrence River basin, sturgeon are less imperiled. Most states within the fish’s range provide state protection, prohibiting or limiting harvest.
A petition by the Center from May of 2018 requested a “threatened” listing under the Endangered Species Act for all lake sturgeon in the United States. An alternative option was for the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether there are distinct populations of lake sturgeon that warrant separate listing as “threatened” or “endangered.”
But the Service has violated the Endangered Species Act in failing to respond to the petition. The Center for Biological Diversity, Fishable Indiana Streams for Hoosiers, Hoosier Environmental Council and Illinois Environmental Council sent today’s notice letter.
In the late 1800s, before commercial fisheries decimated lake sturgeon runs, more than 15 million lived in the Great Lakes. They are now reduced to less than 1 percent of historic levels, with limited natural recovery of most remaining spawning populations.
Although many current restoration efforts are aimed at bringing sturgeon back to rivers and tributaries where they once spawned, depleted sturgeon populations take many decades to recover, and the vast majority of spawning runs have been lost. There are only six remaining lake sturgeon populations with more than 1,000 adult fish.
Many states and tribal organizations are working to restore lake sturgeon spawning populations. But most populations have not recovered from overfishing, and dams still block access to former spawning and rearing habitats. Continued threats include new proposed dams and hydroelectric facilities, excessive water diversions, pollution, river dredging and channelization, invasive species and climate change.
Lake sturgeon have no scales but are covered by rows of bony scutes. Their preferred habitats are large shallow lakes, rivers and near-shore areas, where they feed using their protruding mouths to suction up bottom-dwelling organisms like crustaceans and insect larvae. Lake sturgeon have a low reproductive rate because they take 15 to 25 years to reach spawning age, and adults do not spawn every year.
The Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago is representing the conservation groups in sending the notice.