Hudson's ancient sturgeon snags projects

Kristen Marcell, an outreach support specialist with the

Kristen Marcell, an outreach support specialist with the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, holds an Atlantic sturgeon afloat as the fish gets used to the water of the Hudson River on Wednesday, May 12, 2004, in Staatsburg. ENCON along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 15 Atlantic sturgeon that were captive-bred in a Pennsylvania hatchery. (Credit: AP)

Very soon, the region will be making controversial, multibillion dollar decisions about a bridge, a nuclear power plant and a water treatment facility. No matter what the specific pros and cons, in the end, it may all come down to fish.

Not just any fish, but the prehistoric Atlantic sturgeon that roams the Hudson River's murky bottom, returning each spring to spawn. Now, three politically-charged infrastructure projects lie in the path of the 250-million-year-old, caviar-rich, armor-plated survivor, which can grow to weigh 200 pounds and stretch eight feet in length. All three of the contentious proposals face a major problem: In February, the Atlantic sturgeon was declared an endangered species.

The annual egg-laying-and-fertilizing spawning season just ended -- and the first test of the sturgeon's new endangered status is about to begin.

Later this month, the federal government is expected to release a study on the impact of dredging and proposed construction from the $5.2 billion Tappan Zee Bridge project on the Atlantic sturgeon. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report will analyze the degree to which these strong, steady swimmers might be accidentally killed or startled enough to flee to the ocean, said NOAA supervising fishery biologist Kim Damon-Randall.

"We have to determine whether the project would jeopardize the continued existence of the species," she explained. The goal is to identify problems and find an acceptable solution that will allow NOAA to set acceptable limits for the number of Atlantic sturgeon that can be injured or killed in constructing the new span.

In Westchester, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's relicensing of the aging Indian Point nuclear power plant for another 20 years depends on the facility installing a better way to pump in river water for generating electricity -- the subject of hearings that resume Aug. 1.

A similar deal breaker looms in Rockland, where United Water has proposed a first-of-its-kind water desalination plant. Here too, state regulators want to make sure that the water pumping process effectively screens out fish eggs and newborn larvae instead of sucking the tiny life-forms into the plant to face certain death.

SAVING THE SPECIES

In all three cases, the fish's designation gives new muscle to lawsuits and other legal maneuverings by environmentalists. The goal, they say, is to restore the state's most famous waterway and one of its signature fish to spur tourism and economic development.

"We're not talking about putting anyone out of business; we're talking about changing how we do business to save a species," said Brad Sewell, the Manhattan-based attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed the petition that led to the Atlantic sturgeon's endangered status.

If the species ever rebounds, it may also bring back the river's once-booming commercial fishing industry, Sewell added.

Up until even the early mid-1900s, sturgeon were so plentiful that "Albany beef" and caviar were important Hudson Valley food sources. But overfishing and pollution from riverfront factories both took their toll. In 1998, Atlantic sturgeon fishing was banned along the entire East Coast.

"They finally met their match in humans," said Ellen Pikitch, head of Stony Brook University's Institute for Ocean Conservation Science.

Their potential recovery will take at least four decades because the Atlantic sturgeon, one of 25 sturgeon species worldwide, matures very slowly, she explained. After spending their first several years in the Hudson, they will swim downriver past New York City for ocean life on the Atlantic Coast. Adulthood comes at 20 followed by only periodic bouts of spawning. The fish can live for up to 50 years.

The female adult population in the Hudson has sunk from historic highs of about 6,800 in the late 1800s to barely 270 females and 600 males today, according to NOAA. Females, which spawn every two to five years, can lay between 800,000 and 4 million dark brownish-gray eggs at a time. Males spawn every one to three years.

'THE STAKES ARE HIGH'

Efforts to boost the population continue on land and at sea. In Ossining, litigation-savvy environmentalists at Riverkeeper are actively filing documents against the nuclear reactor site, new bridge project and proposed water treatment plant.

Said Riverkeeper chief investigator Joshua Verleun: "The stakes are very high when there are so few of these fish left."

On the water, researchers are busy sonic-tagging the sturgeon to track their movements and protect them from such dangers as commercial fishing nets and approaching ships. In addition to government marine biologists, studies are under way at the Hudson River Foundation in Manhattan, NYU School of Medicine's Department of Environmental Science in Tuxedo Park, University of Delaware and Stony Brook University.

In the end, though, it's actually all about the eggs.

"If the eggs you produce as a female animal are caviar, you're doomed because you are going to be overfished," said John Lipscomb, Riverkeeper's patrol boat captain. "If their eggs weren't a gourmet appetizer, we wouldn't be talking about the reduced number of Atlantic sturgeon."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

advertisement | advertise on newsday