The federal government is taking action to protect the endangered Atlantic sturgeon, a species that once flourished in the Delaware Estuary, but whose population has dwindled to a few hundred.
The National Marine Fisheries Service wants to designate critical habitats in 16 rivers, including the Delaware, to protect areas that are deemed crucial to supporting the fish population.
The move results from a settlement reached between the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the federal agency two years following a lawsuit filed by the environmental groups.
The environmental community long has been worried about the declining population of the Atlantic Sturgeon in the Delaware, arguing it is endangered because of the loss of habitat and fish kills from power plants and refineries along the river.
“NMFS has made a strong proposal for the protection of this ecologically, historically, and once economically important species,’’ said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper and leader of the network. It is now up to the public to ensure the agency’s proposed rule is strengthened and that efforts to weaken it do not succeed, according to van Rossum.
A year ago, the Sierra Club and other environmentalists filed a notice of intent to sue the state Department of Environmental Protection in New Jersey to force the agency to complete an overdue permitting at a coal-fired plant in Mercer County, which the group claims is harming fish populations.
The suit has not yet been filed. It is aimed at the plant, owned by PSEG Power, and its alleged failure to protect sturgeon from massive water withdrawals at the facility. “This actually strengthens our hand,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, referring to the designation by the federal agency.
The proposed designation for the Delaware River extends from the crossing of the Trenton-Morrisville Route 1 Toll Bridge downstream 137 kilometers to where the main stem of the river discharges into Delaware Bay.
According to Nick Pattorn, attorney for the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, “Critical habitat is the essential habitat for the Atlantic sturgeon’s recovery. NMFS setting critical habitat to include approximately 340 miles of aquatic habitat in the Delaware River is a major step forward in ensuring the recovery of this important species.’’
The designation authorizes the federal agency to take any action it needs to prevent modification or destruction of habitat or that jeopardizes the continued existence of an endangered species, according to its rules.