NOAA 2003-NR03-19
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Chris Smith
3/19/03
NOAA News Releases 2003
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U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE AND THE NATIONAL MARINE FISHERIES SERVICE
DESIGNATE CRITICAL HABITAT FOR THE GULF STURGEON

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), (collectively “the services”) today designated critical habitat for the threatened Gulf sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi) along portions of rivers, estuaries, and marine coastline in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

“This critical habitat designation will inform the public of areas that are important to Gulf sturgeon recovery and identify where conservation actions would be most effective,” said Sam D. Hamilton, southeast regional director, FWS.

The services are making this designation in response to an order issued by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. The services submitted for publication in the Federal Register a final critical habitat determination by February 28, 2003.

The services are designating portions of the following Gulf of Mexico rivers and tributaries as critical habitat for the Gulf sturgeon: Pearl and Bogue Chitto Rivers in Louisiana and Mississippi; Pascagoula, Leaf, Bouie (also referred to as Bowie), Big Black Creek and Chickasawhay Rivers in Mississippi; Escambia, Conecuh, and Sepulga Rivers in Alabama and Florida; Yellow, Blackwater, and Shoal Rivers in Alabama and Florida; Choctawhatchee and Pea Rivers in Florida and Alabama; Apalachicola and Brothers Rivers in Florida; and Suwannee and Withlacoochee River in Florida.

The designation also includes portions of the following estuarine and marine areas: Lake Pontchartrain (east of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway), Lake Catherine, Little Lake, The Rigolets, Lake Borgne, Pascagoula Bay and Mississippi Sound systems in Louisiana and Mississippi, and sections of the adjacent state waters within the Gulf of Mexico; Pensacola Bay system in Florida; Santa Rosa Sound in Florida; nearshore Gulf of Mexico in Florida; Choctawhatchee Bay system in Florida; Apalachicola Bay system in Florida; and Suwannee Sound and adjacent state waters within the Gulf of Mexico in Florida. These geographic areas encompass approximately 1,730 river miles and 2,333 square miles of estuarine and marine habitat.

Changes from the proposed rule include calculation of the total area included in designation; inclusion of identical amendments to both 50 CFR parts 17 and 226; verification of bridge position in Unit 1; additional specifics on fish location in Unit 2; and exclusion of major shipping channels in Units 2, 8 and 9 under section 4(b)(2) of the Endangered Species Act.

“This critical habitat designation incorporates both historic and recent data to best describe areas occupied and utilized by the Gulf sturgeon," said Georgia Cranmore, assistant regional administrator for Protected Resources, NOAA Fisheries southeast region.

As a listed species under the Endangered Species Act, the Gulf sturgeon is already protected wherever it occurs and Federal agencies are required to consult on any action they take that might affect the species.

Critical habitat is a term used in the Endangered Species Act of 1973 that refers to specific geographic areas that are essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species and that may require special management and protection. A critical habitat designation does not establish a preserve or refuge nor does it affect individual citizens, organizations, states, local governments, or other non-federal entities that do not require federal permits or funding. Critical habitat does not include existing developed sites within the proposed units such as dams, piers, marinas, bridges, boat ramps, exposed oil and gas pipelines, oil rigs and similar structures, or designated public swimming areas. Most activities such as recreational boating, canoeing, swimming, most fish and shellfish harvesting (e.g., oystering, scalloping), and commercial boat traffic are unlikely to involve a Federal action that may affect critical habitat and, therefore, would not be expected to trigger a consultation under section 7 of the Endangered Species Act..

When determining areas to designate as critical habitat, the services consider physical and biological habitat features that are essential to the conservation of the species. These features include space for individual and population growth and for normal behavior; cover or shelter; food, water, air, light, minerals, or other nutritional or physiological requirements; sites for spawning and rearing offspring; and habitats that are protected from disturbances or are representative of the historic geographical and ecological distributions of a species. As part of designating critical habitat, the services also have taken into account the economic impact, as well as any other relevant impacts, of specifying any particular area as critical habitat.

An economic analysis we conducted concluded that the designation may result in approximately $3,310,000 to $4,953,000 per year in potential economic impact due to the total effects of critical habitat, including those costs associated with listing of the Gulf sturgeon.

A complete description of the critical habitat designation has been published in the Federal Register today, March 19, 2003. Copies of the economic analysis, final rule, and maps are available by contacting Patty Kelly, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1601 Balboa Avenue, Panama City, Florida 32405
(telephone(850) 769-0552, extension 228; facsimile (850) 763-2177); or Stephania Bolden, NOAA Fisheries, at 9721 Executive Center Drive North, St. Petersburg, Florida 33702-2449, (telephone (727) 570-5312; facsimile (727) 570-5517).

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System which encompasses more than 540 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resource offices, and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) is the principal steward of the nation’s living marine resources, protecting marine and anadromous species under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. NOAA Fisheries develops and implements conservation and recovery plans and works to prevent species from becoming threatened or endangered. NOAA Fisheries also regulates the nation’s commercial and recreational fisheries and manages species under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act throughout federal waters that extend 200 miles from the U.S. coastline. Using the tools provided by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, NOAA Fisheries assesses and predicts the status of fish stocks, ensures compliance with fisheries regulations, and works to reduce wasteful fishing practices. NOAA Fisheries is an agency of the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA warns of dangerous weather, charts our seas and skies, guides our use and protection of ocean and coastal resources, and conducts research to improve our understanding and stewardship of the environment which sustains us.

NOAA: http://www.noaa.gov

NOAA Fisheries, please visit http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: http://www.fws.gov

Fish and Wildlife Gulf Sturgeon: http://alabama.fws.gov/gs/