Environmental and fishing groups petition CA and feds to protect SF Bay white sturgeon

Photo of white sturgeon taken during a sturgeon survey by the
 California Department of Fish and Wildlife. |

By Dan Bacher | 

Environmental and fishing groups are petitioning for yet another Delta fish to be listed under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts as salmon, Delta smelt and other fish populations crash.

On Nov. 29, 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 (CESA).

These groups also separately 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.  

The white sturgeon is a species that I have spent many hours fishing for in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, Suisun Bay and San Pablo Bay over the years. The population reached its largest estimated modern population level in 1997 when the harvestable population rose to approximately 200,000 harvestable fish. Since then the population has declined to around 33,000 (recent five-year average), according to CDFW data. 

The sturgeon population at that time was undergoing a dramatic recovery, due to several years of ideal spawning flows on the Sacramento River spurred by the 1982 and 1983 El Ninos and the creation of a “slot limit” that prohibited the take of white sturgeon over 72 inches long and under 40 inches. That slot limit changed over the years to become more and more restrictive.

The late Hal Bonslett, conservationist and publisher of the Fish Sniffer magazine, the late Barry Canevaro, conservationist and legendary sportfishing skipper, and I played a key role in the 1980s to get the first-ever slot limit adopted by the California Fish and Game Commission to protect the sturgeon by adopting a maximum fish length like Washington and Oregon had in place for years.

However, the population has declined in recent years as the state and federal governments exported massive quantities of water from the Delta to corporate agribusiness interests growing water-intensive almonds and other crops in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California water agencies. Sturgeon — like all fish — need water to thrive. Pollution on San Francisco Bay has also played a significant role in reducing the sturgeon sturgeon, with hundreds of fish killed during the massive toxic algae bloom in 2022.

Rosenfield: Newsom administration is speeding the white sturgeon down road to extinction

In a press statement, the four groups said San Francisco Bay and its watershed are home to the “only known reproductive population of white sturgeon in California.” They blamed “excessive freshwater diversions, regular overfishing, and recent algal outbreaks in the Bay” for decimating the population” — and said “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,” Rosenfield stated. 

Rosenfield said 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.” 

Rosenfield also took aim at the environmentally destructive Sites Dam project, the Delta Tunnel boondoggle and the “voluntary agreements” that the Newsom administration is fast-tracking.

“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,” according to Rosenfield. 

Algae blooms kill hundreds of sturgeon

Rosenfield noted that the white sturgeon population in the San Francisco Bay estuary has also been decimated by two consecutive years of harmful algae blooms. These blooms have caused catastrophic fish kills that 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," Rosenfield continued. "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."  

During the summer of 2022, a HAB in the San Francisco and San Pablo bays caused the death of tens of thousands of fish including at least 864 sturgeon, according to the CDFW. Most sturgeon experts believe there were likely thousands more sturgeon killed during the HAB, that sank to the bottom of bay waters and were not counted.

“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,” the groups stated.

The groups noted that white sturgeon are “large and hardy, and can tolerate catch-and-release fishing.” For example, 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, the groups,” they stated.

White sturgeon are North America’s largest freshwater fish. Joey Pallotta, III, of Crockett, California, caught the state record white sturgeon weighing 468 pounds in San Pablo Bay in Contra Costa County on July 9, 1983. The fish is also the all tackle IGFA world record for the species. That record will hold into the future, since no fish of this size or larger may be kept by anglers throughout the white sturgeon’s range now.

Group representatives explain why they are petitioning for ESA & CESA listings 

Representatives of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Bay Institute and Restore the Delta also commented on why they decided to go forward with the listings.

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.”  

Gary Bobker, program director for the Bay Institute, agreed with Shutes.

“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,” said Shutes. “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.”

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, also argued for the state and federal listings of California white sturgeon: 

“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,” she concluded.

Listing a species is no guarantee of survival when deep regulatory capture prevails

Unfortunately, listing under CESA and the ESA is no guarantee that a species will recover, due to deep regulatory capture by Big Ag and other corporate interests in the supposedly “green” and “progressive” state of California. In other words, when the regulators are captured by the regulated, environmental laws are regularly broken by the state and federal governments to enrich Big Ag oligarchs and other corporate interests.

Despite three decades of supposed “protection” under the ESA and CESA, the Delta smelt has now become virtually extinct in the wild. No Delta smelt have been found in the CDFW’s Fall Midwater Trawl Survey on the Delta for 5 years. I am now the only journalist in California to report regularly on the results of the survey every year.

The decline of the Delta’s pelagic (open water) species, including three once-abundant fish species pursued by anglers, has been catastrophic since the State Water Project went into operation in 1967. 

Between 1967 and 2020, the state’s Fall Midwater Trawl abundance indices, a measure of relative abundance for striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad. have declined by 99.7, 100, 99.96, 67.9, 100, and 95 percent, respectively, according to the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

Emergency regulations to reduce the harvest of white sturgeon in state waters are now in effect. Here are the details:

Emergency White Sturgeon Harvest Regulations Now in Effect

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) announced on Nov. 17 that emergency regulations enacted by the California Fish and Game Commission (Commission) last month to reduce the harvest of white sturgeon in state waters are now in effect, having been approved by the Office of Administrative Law.

The new regulations reduce the number of fish that can be kept to one per year, reduce the slot limit to 42-48 inches, cap the number of white sturgeon that can be possessed on a vessel at two per day and add seasonal closures to sturgeon fishing in key spawning areas.

The new regulations were enacted by the Commission following a joint recommendation by CDFW and angling groups. The emergency action was taken in response to long-term declines in adult white sturgeon populations as well as impacts of a harmful algal bloom (HAB) in the summer of 2022.

There are two sturgeon species in California: green sturgeon and white sturgeon. Green sturgeon are listed as a threatened species under the Federal Endangered Species Act. White sturgeon are listed in California as a Species of Special Concern.

Sturgeon are one of the oldest fish in existence with fossil records dating back more than 200 million years. Individual white sturgeon can live about 100 years and don’t start spawning until approximately 14 to 19 years old. Scientists estimate that white sturgeon in the Central Valley only spawn successfully every six to seven years. White sturgeon abundance has declined significantly from approximately 200,000 harvestable fish in 1997 to around 33,000 (recent five-year average). Sturgeon fisheries in California have closed multiple times in the past due to overharvest.

During the summer of 2022, a HAB in the San Francisco and San Pablo bays caused the death of tens of thousands of fish including at least 864 sturgeon. Most sturgeon experts believe there were likely thousands more sturgeon killed during the HAB, that sank to the bottom of bay waters and were not counted.

Harvest has been reduced to one white sturgeon for 2023 and 2024. Catch and release fishing for white sturgeon will still be allowed with a valid sturgeon report card after one sturgeon is kept except for closures outlined in California Code of Regulations, Title 14, Sections 5.80(opens in new tab) and 27.95(opens in new tab). The slot limit has been reduced to 42-48 inches, and a limit of two fish per vessel per day was added. Fishing for white sturgeon will also be closed seasonally upstream of the Highway 50 bridge on the Sacramento River and Interstate 5 bridge on the San Joaquin River from January 1 to May 31, 2024. This upstream area will re-open to catch and release fishing on June 1, 2024, once spawning season is over.

Sturgeon Report Cards purchased in the 2023 calendar year remain valid for the remainder of 2023. All reporting, tag and report card requirements remain in effect. Only one sturgeon harvest tag will be valid. Any remaining sturgeon harvest tags beyond one still in possession for the 2023 calendar year will be invalid for the remainder of 2023. Anglers that have already harvested one or more fish in 2023 will still be allowed to catch and release sturgeon for the remainder of 2023 with a valid Sturgeon Report Card. The changes to sturgeon harvest regulations may cause a delay in availability of 2024 sturgeon report cards and the single harvest tag.

Report cards for 2024 will be available for sale soon. Sturgeon Report Card requirements will remain in effect for 2024.

CDFW is currently working on a white sturgeon regulation package to allow for limited harvest. The regulation package is scheduled to go through the Commission regulation setting process with a target effective date of January 2025.

For more information visit CDFW’s sturgeon web page. Questions can be sent to sturgeon@wildlife.ca.gov.

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