Petitions Filed to Protect SF Bay White Sturgeon Under Endangered Species Laws 

For Immediate Release: 11/29/23

North America’s largest and oldest fish are declining fast, as more threats loom.

Today, San Francisco Baykeeper, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, the Bay Institute, and Restore the Delta petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to list the California white sturgeon as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act. Separately, these groups petitioned Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and NOAA Fisheries to list the San Francisco Bay population of white sturgeon as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

San Francisco Bay and its watershed are home to the only known reproductive population of white sturgeon in California. Excessive freshwater diversions, regular overfishing, and recent algal outbreaks in the Bay have decimated the population. Immediate action is necessary to protect this fish, already categorized as a species of special concern in California, as well as its habitat. 

“White sturgeon have been around for about 46 million years,” said Baykeeper science director Jon Rosenfield, PhD. “They are the ultimate survivors, but the Bay’s population might not survive into the next generation because of neglect from government agencies that are supposed to protect our Bay and its fishes. We divert too much water from Central Valley rivers, dump too much pollution into the Bay, and we overfish this white sturgeon population. The science is clear, but our agencies are ignoring it—and Governor Newsom’s administration is speeding the white sturgeon down the road to extinction. Protection under the state and federal endangered species acts is now required to keep this ancient fish from disappearing.”  

The Bay’s white sturgeon population has experienced a persistent and dramatic population decline because state and federal agencies allow too much fresh water to be diverted from the Bay’s Central Valley tributaries to supply industrial agriculture and large cities. White sturgeon require high river flows in order to reproduce successfully. 

Despite the effects of excessive water diversions on white sturgeon and other native fish species, the Newsom administration is proposing to increase water diversions with a new dam (the Sites Dam project), a gigantic new water diversion (the Delta tunnel project), and through “voluntary agreements” negotiated in secret with major water diverters. Government agencies cannot allow the continued diversion of more than half of the Bay’s freshwater inflow, much less increase those diversions, which the Newsom administration currently plans.

The white sturgeon population in the San Francisco Bay estuary has also been decimated by two consecutive years of harmful algae blooms. These blooms, which have caused catastrophic fish kills, are linked to treated sewage discharges from Bay Area treatment plants. 

“In order to protect white sturgeon from catastrophic fish kills—as well as the rest of the Bay ecosystem—the SF Bay Regional Water Board must put an end to harmful algal blooms in the Bay by limiting the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen that sewage treatment plants are permitted to discharge,” Baykeeper’s Rosenfield stated. “Governor Newsom must also allow the State Water Board to finally  implement its 2018 flow standards for the San Joaquin river to help combat different harmful algal blooms that block sturgeon migration in the San Joaquin River.” 

Recent science also demonstrates that the state must regulate sport fishing for white sturgeon. The state does not permit fishing under any circumstances for the related green sturgeon, which is already on the federal endangered species list. However, the state Fish and Game Commission recently rejected the recommendations of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which it oversees, and failed to enact emergency white sturgeon fishing regulations that would have permitted catch-and-release fishing only. 

White sturgeon are large and hardy, and can tolerate catch-and-release fishing. The white sturgeon population of Canada’s Fraser River was restored while allowing catch-and-release fishing. The Fraser’s white sturgeon fishery is now a multi-million dollar enterprise. The petitioning organizations all support catch-and-release fishing for white sturgeon.

Sturgeon once supported a commercial fishery in San Francisco Bay, but that fishery was permanently closed in 1917. Today, sturgeon from the Bay are not recommended for human consumption because they carry high concentrations of toxins like mercury, selenium, heavy metals, and forever chemicals. 

White sturgeon are North America’s largest freshwater fish. California’s record white sturgeon was approximately 10 feet long and weighed almost 500 pounds. Their bony plates and large size protect them from most other predators. White sturgeon can live more than 100 years. They are part of a family of fishes that predate the dinosaurs; this species appears largely unchanged in the fossil record for the past 46 million years.   

Chris Shutes, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance said: “It’s a particularly sad day when it becomes necessary to list another fish under the state and federal endangered species acts. It is especially painful for me as someone who spent many, many days fishing sturgeon in the Delta and San Pablo Bay. Bad water management is devastating California’s fisheries, and people who fish are left to shoulder far too many of the consequences.”

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, said: “The need for listing white sturgeon is another sign of how fisheries are crashing in the Delta. While white sturgeon should not be consumed, 90% of people who reside in Delta environmental justice communities depend on fish caught in the Delta to supplement their diets. Collapsing fisheries are an environmental justice issue, and environmental justice issues are civil rights issues for California tribes and communities of color.”

Gary Bobker, program director for the Bay Institute, said: “Sturgeon can live for decades – but not long enough to outlive California’s disastrous water management policies if we don’t change course soon to save these amazing fish. There’s an abundance of evidence about the flow, water quality, and fishing regulations that will keep sturgeon populations healthy, but a dearth of political leadership to take the steps necessary to protect our collapsing aquatic ecosystems.” 

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