Sturgeon are living icons of estuaries. These ancient fish who have survived unchanged for 200 million years, are now heading towards extinction due to habitat change and overfishing. Two of the 26 living species of sturgeon inhabit the west coast of North America, the white and the green.
Before colonizers moved into the Chehalis River valley, plentiful sturgeon were a staple food of the Chehalis people. White sturgeon in the lower Chehalis were called spånw ł in the Chehalis language. Above the Satsop River, they were called spå ̓nułtn. Another word, wã, referred to the power of sturgeon—so intense that most young men could not endure the ordeal of encountering it in order to receive the gift of success at fishing.
With the colonizers came commerce and overfishing. In 1888, the year before Washington became a state, 94 tons of Columbia River sturgeon were “salted and pickled and the first car of frozen sturgeon shipped east,” according to a 1973 Marine Fisheries Review article. In 1892, 5.5 million pounds of sturgeon were harvested from the Columbia River. Five years after that, the catch was below 100,000 pounds, a decline of over 98% in less than 10 years. Today, demand is focused on sturgeon roe, reportedly worth over $200 an ounce. A mature female can carry up to $300,000 worth of roe.
Southern green sturgeon
In this article, I focus on the southern green sturgeon (Southern Distinct Population Segment or sDPS). Green sturgeon need about 17 years to mature, can reach lengths up to 7 feet, live as long as 70 years and weight 350 pounds. Adults are known to inhabit Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor estuaries and waterways where I work.
Jeff Miller, a Senior Conservation Advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) describes sturgeon as “living fossils that have successfully survived unchanged since the Jurassic era, but they are now more endangered than any other group of species. The fate of green sturgeon reflects the dramatic changes to our West Coast rivers and estuaries, which have been degraded by loss of habitat, excessive water diversions and reduced river flows, pollutants, dredging, invasive species, and climate change.”
A plan for recovery
Over the past two decades, actions by the CBD and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) listed the sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act. Then, in 2018, the National Marine Fisheries Service finalized a recovery plan for the Southern Distinct Population Segment of the North American green sturgeon, designating 8.6 million acres of critical habitat including the estuaries of Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay.
Threats from declining estuarine habitat
Estuaries are complex ecosystems found along the coastline where freshwater and saltwater mix, where over time many different creatures have been able to survive in relative harmony. Long ago, native Olympia oysters proliferated on these tide flats. Overharvesting ended this abundance in the 1870s and today commercial oyster farmers almost exclusively farm non-native Pacific oysters, which grow faster and tolerate a more extensive tidal range. In recent years, these non-native oysters faced a new threat—an explosion of ghost shrimp populations. This unexpectedly gave commercial growers a new interest in recovery of the green sturgeon.
Ghost shrimp burrow deep into the tidal flats where commercial oysters are farmed, and disturb the flats to such an extent that the sediment becomes soft. In these soft sediments, oysters sink and drown. Insecticides that were once available to control the shrimp are no longer allowed.
It appears that, along with other factors, the decline of the green sturgeon might be one of the reasons that burrowing shrimp populations increased. Green sturgeon hang out in deep areas when the tide is out, and when it comes in, they rush into tidal flats to feed on the burrowing shrimp. The more sturgeon, the fewer shrimp.
The threat from navigation improvement projects
The Chehalis is a big, meandering river that delivers massive loads of sediment downstream into Grays Harbor, an important shipping port. Huge tankers transit in and out, picking up or discharging loads of soybean meal, logs, wood chips, cars, and more. In order for deep-draft vessels to navigate efficiently, large portions of the 27-mile long channel require frequent dredging by the US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps): a lot of dredging, over 1.2 million cubic yards a year. The Port of Grays Harbor has requested to deepen the channel an additional two feet to accommodate current and future vessel traffic.
Green sturgeon typically frequent deep areas of the Grays Harbor estuary, showing up in mid-June and clearing out by mid-September. Dredging is likely to disturb prey, release harmful contaminants, degrade water quality and disturb bottom substrate refugia. If this occurs in summer when sturgeon are present, it could result in entrainment of southern green sturgeon.
As part of the process of the Endangered Species Act, NOAA required the Corps of Engineers to monitor to limit the danger to entrapped green sturgeon during any hopper dredge operation in outer Grays Harbor. But recently the Corps announced that they were opting out of the required monitoring due to safety concerns brought on by COVID-19.
Along with the CBD, Waterkeepers wrote to the Corps requesting that dredging be postponed until monitors could be safely used in order to prevent any risk of entraining green salmon above the limits set by NOAA. Our request was not heeded, and the dredging occurred without the required monitoring.
Aquatic Reserves and the future outlook
Another option for future protection of the greens could be establishment of an Aquatic Reserve. In 2002, a program was started to establish Aquatic Reserves on state-owned lands. The purpose was to conserve high quality native ecosystems in both freshwater and marine environments. There are only eight such reserves in the state and the last one was created in 2016.
There is a process for tribes, stakeholders, individuals and government agencies to nominate sites to become Aquatic Reserves. The process takes about two and a half years but new nominations are delayed until 2021.
In addition to green sturgeon there are significant salmon and forage fish habitat protection opportunities, potential for eelgrass preservation and restoration. Rising sea levels are already impacting Grays Harbor and climate resiliency will depend on decisions that we make today. In February 2020, the DNR published its “DNR Climate Resilience Plan” that envisions establishment of additional reserves to maintain and enhance climate resilience related ecosystem services.
It’s time to get moving.
Lee First is a Twin Harbors Waterkeeper.
Sources: WA Dept. of Natural Resources, Center for Biological Diversity, Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Historic Preservation Office, National Marine Fisheries Service. 2018. Recovery Plan for the Southern Distinct Population Segment of North American Green Sturgeon, Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Historic Preservation Office; Oysters, Crabs, and Burrowing Shrimp: Review of an Environmental Conflict over Aquatic Resources and Pesticide Use in Washington State’s (USA) Coastal Estuaries, US Army Corps of Engineers, Seattle District website
Great leapin’ …. sturgeon!
White sturgeon, Acipenser transmontanus, is a true giant. They can be up to 20 feet long and tip the scales at 1,500 pounds. It is generally believed that white sturgeon live up to 100 years. They are pseudo-anadromous; spending most of their lives in large rivers from Baja California to the Gulf of Alaska, often lurking in deep, soft estuary bottoms. Some studies have shown that they are sedentary in winter months, moving around in spring and fall. In the Pacific Northwest, many have been landlocked by dams in the Columbia River drainage, with more than 250 reservoirs and over 60 dams. And they jump! (There’s even a study that tried to determine why.)
The last time I paddled the Chehalis River, a huge white sturgeon jumped about 5 feet straight up right in front of me. I almost fainted, which is not advisable when paddling solo in a big river. My acquaintance with sturgeon dates back to my first Waterkeeper Alliance conference, about 15 years ago. Sturgeon is the symbol of the Alliance, a group of over 350 water protectors around the globe. At the start of the conference, they invited anyone wanting a sturgeon tattoo to board a bus —several hours later, 25 brand new Waterkeepers proudly brandished the image of a sturgeon on arms or legs.
I’m not the only Waterkeeper with a sturgeon obsession. Sturgeon is the iconic fish of New York’s Hudson River, where Riverkeeper, the first Waterkeeper Organization, began more than 50 years ago. Sturgeon have the strength to swim against the current and, clearly from their age, are amazing in their adaptability to survive hard times. Of the 26 species of sturgeon throughout the world, most, in spite of their strength and longevity, are presently threatened or endangered — much like our clean water resources. For all these reasons, the sturgeon is the Waterkeeper movement’s mascot, and at almost every Conference, Waterkeepers show their pride by getting the sturgeon logo tattoo.
As far as jumping goes, results from video images of sturgeon jumps, and sonograms of sturgeon jumping sounds were compared and found to be distinct and different from sounds of other fish jumping. Some think that the sound made by jumping sturgeon is their form of communication. Although this has not been confirmed, these fish are social and travel in groups, so they likely have some form of communication.