BARNEGAT LIGHT — Commercial fishermen are worried an endangered species listing for the Atlantic sturgeon, announced last week by the National Marine Fisheries Service and set to take effect in April, could have a major impact on their operations.

Atlantic sturgeon, a prehistoric fish that once made South Jersey the caviar capital of the world, would be the first ocean fish in the region to win endangered species protection. A smaller sturgeon, the short-nosed sturgeon, which lives in rivers, already is protected but it doesn’t end up in the nets of ocean fishermen. The nearest fish with such protections is the Atlantic salmon in New England.

“You remember the spotted owl? That’s all I have to relate it to,” said local net fisherman Kevin Wark.

Wark said the Endangered Species Act makes it illegal to land a sturgeon but he said it’s almost impossible to avoid them.

“The listing says basically you can’t touch them, you can’t handle them, you can’t catch them. This is going to be huge. This is going to affect every otter trawl and gillnet from North Carolina to Maine. This is going to affect a lot of people,” Wark said.

The NMFS says the impact will vary depending on the type of fishing. The agency already is trying to reduce the impacts and has been working with Wark for several years to develop gillnets, a type of net that catches fish by the gills, which are less likely to catch sturgeon. Wark has also caught 344 sturgeon off Delaware in the past three years as part of a University of Delaware study to identify the health of the brood stock for the New York Bight region, which includes both the Delaware and Hudson rivers. Sturgeon live most of their lives in the ocean but go up rivers to spawn.

“They asked me to catch them because nobody knows anything about them,” Wark said.

NMFS spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus said the agency will work with states and fishing councils along the coast, which develop “fishery management plans” for just about every marketable species, to avoid conflicts.

“We have to look at each fishery individually and whether or not it poses a risk to sturgeon. We’ll work with the (fishing) councils and the states to look at all fishery management plans and gear types. That’s the next step and it will take a little time,” said Mooney-Seus.

Kim Damon-Randall, a supervising fishery biologist with the NMFS, said a system may be developed similar to what is now in use for accidental catches of marine mammals under the protection of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. Fishermen are allowed what is known as “incidental takes” of marine mammals. Damon-Randall said each fishery management plan first will be looked at to see if there is a way to reduce any jeopardy to sturgeon in that fishery.

“If there is jeopardy, we’ll come up with an alternative to avoid jeopardy. After avoiding jeopardy then we can authorize incidental takes,” Damon-Randall said.

That is a lot of work to do before the listing goes into place on April 6, and after that catching a sturgeon is a violation of Section 9 of the Endangered Species Act. However, Damon-Randall said she doubts enforcement action would be taken initially, while the NMFS is still working on guidelines.

Wark has caught sturgeon to sell to the fresh fish market. Catches were banned in state waters in 1998 and in federal waters outside three miles in 1999. Barnegat Light was one of the last New Jersey ports to target sturgeon, though the quota declined to just 15,475 pounds in 1994.

“We saw them in shad nets and started fishing for them,” Wark recalled.

The government is promising to work with fisherman and others impacted by the listing, which includes the shipping industry, dredging projects, and other occupations that can come into contact with sturgeon. Wark is worried environmental groups won’t be as patient.

“You just don’t know what environmental groups will do. I think we’re in uncharted waters. I hope they don’t just start suing everybody because that’s their MO (modus operandi).”

Damon-Randall said the potential is there for lawsuits from green groups but she said NMFS has been preparing for the listing for some time. She noted Wark was hired to develop monkfish nets to avoid sturgeon and the work looks very promising.

“We’ve been trying to gear up for this,” Damon-Randall said.

Barnegat Light has the largest gillnet fleet in the state, but another concern is the trawl nets used in other ports, including Cape May and Point Pleasant Beach.

The decline of sturgeon from over-fishing, dam construction and pollution in the rivers where they spawn was rapid. The East Coast catch was 7 million pounds a year in the late 1800’s but was down to 200,000 pounds by 1996.

The Cumberland County town of Bayside once was named Caviar because it led the world in exports of the fish-egg delicacy sturgeon produce. In the 1880s the town supplied more caviar than anyplace else in the world. In 1895 the town had 22 caviar and sturgeon wholesalers with 15 train cars per day taking their products to market.

Damon-Randall said at one time the Delaware had 180,000 spawning females and now there are believed to be less than 300. The Hudson River had more than 6,000 spawning females and now is down to 270.

Sturgeon, which date back 120 million years to dinosaur times, can grow to 14 feet and weigh 800 pounds. During spawning 25 percent of a female’s weight can be in roe. Sturgeon was the first cash crop for the Jamestown settlement in Virginia and a fishery was established in Maine in 1628. Besides the meat and caviar, the skin was used for leather products and book bindings while a gelatin in the swim bladder was used in jellies, wine, beer, glue and carriage windows.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711