The Delaware River once supported the largest population of Atlantic sturgeon in North America. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that there were once 180,000 spawning female Atlantic sturgeon in the Delaware. In the the Delaware River became the “caviar capital of North America.” From 1890 to 1899, 75% of the sturgeon harvested in the U.S. were captured in the Delaware River. By 1900, the population and the catch was already severely depressed. In 1901, New Jersey landings were down to a mere 6% of the peak levels harvested just over a decade earlier in 1889.
Habitat loss (primarily due to deepening and dredging), saltwater intrusion, water pollution and poor water quality, the covering over of river bottom habitat needed for spawning with silt from the coal industry, boat and propeller strikes, and fisheries bycatch mortality (both in the Estuary and the ocean) have all contributed to the Atlantic sturgeon’s continuing decline and inability to recover.
The wealth of harms inflicted upon the Atlantic sturgeon, coupled with the species' life cycle in which the fish reproduce relatively late in their long-lived lives and not as often as other species, has caused the Atlantic sturgeon population to remain at extremely low levels and unable to rebound in the Delaware River.
The most recent National Marine Fisheries Service estimate is that there is an annual mean of 87 spawning adult Atlantic sturgeon in the Delaware River. Scientific research has documented that these Delaware River spawning adults contain fish with a unique genetic line; research shows that haplotype A5 is private to the Atlantic sturgeon of the Delaware River.
The Delaware Riverkeeper Network has worked to protect Atlantic sturgeon from multiple harmful projects, including the Army Corps Delaware River Main Channel Deepening Project, Pennsylvania's Southport River fill project, the airport expansion proposal, and the currently inactive but potentially revivable Crown Landing Liquified Natural Gas facility. All of these are known to be a risk to the Atlantic sturgeon of the Delaware River.
Atlantic sturgeon in the Delaware River are now listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. On October 6, 2010, the Fisheries Service recommended listing the Delaware River population of Atlantic sturgeon as part of the New York Bight Distinct Population Segment that also includes Atlantic sturgeon spawning in the Hudson River. DRN submitted comments in support of this listing proposal, emphasizing the genetically unique nature of the fish in our River as well as the multiple threats facing them.
The final rule listing the New York Bight DPS as well as two other DPS in the northeast region was published on February 6, 2012, with the listing taking effect April 6, 2012. This listing is a critical step in protecting the species, but more remains to be done. The Fisheries Service has not yet fulfilled its statutory obligation to designate critical habitat for the Atlantic sturgeon, i.e., specific areas containing physical or biological features essential to conservation that require special management and protection. In the February 2012 final listing rule, the Fisheries Service made a finding that critical habitat was not determinable, thereby extending the deadline by a year.
In April 2012, we wrote to the Fisheries Service, emphasizing the importance of critical habitat designation. By statute a final critical habitat designation was required by February 6, 2013, but the Fisheries Service has not yet issued one.
DRN is continuing to be proactive in ensuring that federal and state agencies meet their duties to protect the Atlantic sturgeon and that they make their decisions based on the best available scientific information. In April and June 2012, we sent detailed letters to the Fisheries Service regarding the Army Corps' Deepening Project then undergoing an Endangered Species Act Section 7 consultation process. We highlighted the many flaws in the Corps' biological assessment and gathered an extensive set of research papers documenting the best available information on the threats to the species. We followed up in June 2012 providing yet more up-to-date information on the species.
In February 2013, we sent a comment letter to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control opposing the plan to build an oceanic outfall in the City of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, to discharge treated effluent from the wastewater treatment plant. The Environmental Impact Statement assumes without full information or analysis that the outfall will not adversely affect Atlantic sturgeon.