Group fights for more-protected status (copy)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service workers handle a 200-pound sturgeon at the Bears Bluff National Fish Hatchery on Wadmalaw Island. Provided. 

Federal regulators have designated a sweeping range of coastal rivers as critical habitat for the endangered Atlantic sturgeon — a range that includes South Carolina.

The "critical" designation means that human activity in those waters has to be conducted in a way that doesn't permanently hurt the fish's ability to survive.

State rivers included in the designation are the Waccamaw, Pee Dee, Black, Santee, North Santee, South Santee, Cooper, Edisto, Combahee, Salkehatchie and Bulls Creek.

The entire habitat area affected by the designation is nearly 4,000 river miles along the East Coast. 

"The designation of critical habitat does not include any new restrictions or management measures for recreational or commercial fishing operations, nor does it create any preserves or refuges," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries said in a news release.

What it does do is require regulators to gauge impact on the habitat when approving projects.

The sturgeon is one of the oldest species of fish surviving today and is the largest fish on the East Coast that swims between fresh and salt water. With no teeth, it doesn't bite bait, so it's rarely caught. It apparently eats marine worms by mucking the bottom with a vacuum-like tube.

Nobody knows what effect its absence might have on the bottom habitat. The strange creatures keep so much to themselves that most people don't even know they are around until they are startled by the fishes' occasional, mysterious launches straight out of the water.

The sturgeon was once plentiful enough to be a cash crop for the Jamestown colony in Virginia. They were so abundant in the Hudson River in New York they were termed "Albany beef" at the turn of the 20th century when 3,000 tons per year were being netted along the East Coast.

On the South Carolina coast, particularly in the ACE Basin, the fish is thought to be holding its own, based on netting surveys. 

S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologists helped collect the data that led to the designation. The agency has concerns about how far up the state's rivers the critical habitat boundaries will extend and has asked for a meeting with NOAA Fisheries, said Bill Post, DNR research manager.

Post did not want to comment until after the meeting.

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Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.