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U.S. to Protect Gulf Sturgeon

June 7, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ Gulf sturgeon, already listed as a threatened species, would gain further protection under a court-ordered government proposal to designate regions of ``critical habitat″ for the fish.

Four public hearings on the proposal are planned in August in Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana. A final decision is due by Feb. 28, 2003.

``This is a great thing, because in the big picture, the environment is the economy, and so there will be an enormous economic benefit from the recovery of Gulf sturgeon,″ said David Guest, a lawyer who heads the Florida office of San Francisco-based Earthjustice, the environmental law firm that filed suit over sturgeon for the Sierra Club.

The proposal Thursday by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service outlines specific geographic areas that are essential for conservation of Gulf sturgeon and may require special management and protection.

Georgia Cranmore, an assistant regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the areas are based on historic data as well as information collected as recently as May.

Federal officials would have to take a closer look at any activities that might affect the fish along portions of rivers, estuaries and coastline in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

But it is unclear how the critical habitat designation, made in response to an order by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, might affect government projects.

Environmentalists say it could affect dredging of the Apalachicola River by the Army Corps of Engineers or construction of a dam envisioned for the Yellow River in Florida’s western Panhandle.

Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Christine Eustis in Atlanta said federal agencies are already studying ways to minimize damage to the Gulf sturgeon.

``Our assessment is it’s not going to have any extra burden or impact beyond the consultations we’re already doing with federal agencies,″ she said.

The oldest living species of fish, the sturgeon’s fossil ancestry dates back more than 200 million years. It can live up to 70 years, grow longer than 9 feet and weigh more than 300 pounds.

The fish thrived in the Gulf of Mexico before 1900 but has been threatened with extinction by overfishing, dams and pollution. Since the late 1800s, it was harvested for its edible flesh and eggs. Sturgeon gained protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1991.

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On the Net:

Fish and Wildlife Service: http://alabama.fws.gov/gs

Earthjustice: http://www.earthjustice.org

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