Nonprofit says federal program could be hurting endangered Atlantic sturgeon in James River

A crane unloads shipping containers from a barge at the Richmond Marine Terminal on the James...
A crane unloads shipping containers from a barge at the Richmond Marine Terminal on the James River.(Port of Virginia)
Published: Aug. 4, 2021 at 8:18 AM EDT
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A national environmental nonprofit is threatening to sue the federal government over its failure to examine how a program that encourages the use of waterways for shipping affects endangered species, including Atlantic sturgeon in Virginia’s James River.

Increased vessel traffic on major U.S. rivers and coasts resulting from America’s Marine Highway Program run by the U.S. Maritime Administration “certainly ‘may affect’ listed species that rely on those waterways,” asserts a July 27 letter from the Center for Biological Diversity to the administration.

Despite that potential, the letter says the Maritime Administration has not assessed how the Marine Highway Program as a whole or specific project it supports could impact endangered species.

“It’s pretty clear that vessel traffic adversely affects the species,” said Jared Margolis, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “They should have to take that into consideration.”

The Maritime Administration did not respond to specific questions about what reviews it had done with regard to the program’s impact on endangered species. A spokesperson said in an email that “the letter has been received and a response will be provided to the Center for Biological Diversity.”

Established by Congress in 2007, the Marine Highway Program promotes the use of the U.S.’ 25,000 miles of navigable waters for shipping and transportation, including by issuing grants for projects that expand navigation.

Since the program began funding projects in 2010, Virginia has received more than $4.3 million, with over $4 million in grants going toward initiatives related to the Port of Virginia. In 2018, the port, which is run by the Virginia Port Authority, received $1.8 million from the Marine Highway Program to expand the existing container shipping service on the James River.

Expansion of service may have led to an increase in ships striking and killing Atlantic sturgeon in the James, the Center for Biological Diversity says.

Scientists and fisheries experts have been struggling for decades to revive Atlantic sturgeon populations, which were abundant along the East Coast until the collapse of the fishery in the early 20th century. The James River, which once supported an estimated 10,000 sturgeon during the spawning season when the fish travel up their natal rivers to reproduce, was believed by many to no longer be home to any of the ancient species.


.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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