ST. LOUIS — Shovelnose sturgeon are not endangered, but they may get federal protection in parts of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers simply because they look like their relative, the endangered pallid sturgeon.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Monday that because the young of the two relatives look alike, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to declare the shovelnose a threatened species in areas where both exist — the Mississippi River downstream from Alton, Ill., and the Missouri River from Montana to the Mississippi.
The service will accept public comment on the proposal until Nov. 23.
The plan could be problematic for commercial fishermen who sell the shovelnose sturgeon because their eggs can be made into caviar. The newspaper said Missouri has about 260 commercial fishermen, and Illinois has about 1,200.
Commercial harvest of shovelnose sturgeon is on the rise in the Mississippi. The Fish and Wildlife Service said 6,600 pounds were harvested in 1995; 23,000 pounds were harvested in 2007. The river is the world's most abundant fishery for the shovelnose, according to Rob Maher, commercial fisheries biologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Demand for domestic roe, or eggs, rose as European fisheries became nearly depleted about a decade ago.
Commercial fishing of shovelnose is "a lucrative business for a very few people," Dave Herzog, a resource specialist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, told the Post-Dispatch. The state issued 18 licenses for harvest of shovelnose roe last year, he said.
The Endangered Species Act allows for protection of a species if its appearance is so similar to a protected species that enforcing the law is difficult.
Adult pallid and shovelnose sturgeon don't look that similar — the pallid can live for more than 40 years and weigh up to 65 pounds, while shovelnose live about 20 years and rarely exceed 5 pounds.
But the young of both sturgeon look alike. Shovelnose are believed to outnumber pallid 80-to-1.
Commercial fishing of sturgeon is substantial along the Mississippi from Wisconsin to Tennessee, and on parts of the Ohio and Wabash rivers, the Post-Dispatch said.
Maher wonders if the federal action is really necessary because commercial fishermen already must attend certification classes and prove they can distinguish between the sturgeon. Strong penalties exist for fishermen who harvest pallid sturgeon, including loss of eligibility for a state permit for three years, as well as federal penalties.
"There's a lot at stake," Maher said. "These guys are making pretty good money, and it would be foolish for them to jeopardize that."
But Jim Garvey, director of the Fisheries and Illinois Aquaculture Center at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, has studied the sturgeon and believes the numbers of both types have dropped sharply as fishing has increased.
He believes poaching of pallid sturgeon is rare.
"I think most people are honest and conscientious," Garvey said. "There are a few people who aren't and they make it more difficult for everyone."