Huge Spike in Dead Sturgeon Reported in Hudson River
Riverkeeper, represented by Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic, petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) last week to investigate and take immediate action in response to a shocking spike in reported sturgeon mortalities in the Hudson River estuary since the 2012 start of the new Tappan Zee Bridge construction project.
In the three-year period before construction began—2009 to 2011—a total of six sturgeon fatalities were reported throughout the estuary to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). In the three years after construction began—2012 to 2014—there were 76. In many cases the sturgeon were found cut in half, gashed or severed at the head or tail due to vessel strikes. Dozens more sturgeon mortalities have been reported to the DEC in 2015, bringing the total to more than 100.
The dramatic increases coincide with the start of pile installation testing in 2012; the massive dredging and pile driving work that began in 2013; and the ongoing bridge construction, involving close to 200 project vessels in and around the Tappan Zee.
The 2013 and 2014 reports, obtained through Freedom of Information Law requests, are compiled on this Google Earth map.
Between Crotonville and Riverdale alone, 10 and 13 sturgeon mortalities were reported in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Riverkeeper noted in its petition that the Hudson River estuary is tidal, meaning a dead or injured fish could be transported north or south of the project area on the tide. Moreover, a sturgeon injured as a result of project activity might travel some distance before it ultimately dies.
Riverkeeper seeks immediate, interim measures to protect endangered populations of shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon from the construction activity.
“These alarming numbers demand answers—and immediate action—to protect endangered sturgeon,” Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay said. “We were promised an environmentally sensitive bridge replacement project that would not cause significant harm to the life in the river. It looks like those promises have not been kept.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reviewed the bridge project as part of its responsibility to protect endangered species. The service issued an opinion in 2013 that the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project “is likely to adversely affect, but not likely to jeopardize the continued existence” of endangered populations of Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon. It concluded that dredging or pile driving would likely cause the deaths of two shortnose sturgeon and two Atlantic sturgeon over the entire course of the project. That toll is deemed the project's “allowable take” permitted by NMFS and the DEC.
If even one sturgeon mortality were caused by a project vessel strike, that would exceed the project's allowable take. With data suggesting that the permitted threshold has been grossly exceeded, Riverkeeper petitions the Fisheries Service to re-initiate consultation on the project, analyze the causes of death and take immediate steps to lower the risks of sturgeon fatalities.
Such steps—to be determined by the Fisheries Service and the appropriate specialists—might include enforcing the 5 mph speed limit in the Tappan Zee construction zone; requiring propeller cages on deeper draft tugs and push boats; doubling the size of “bubble curtains” used to control damaging shock waves from pile-driving; and requiring that dredge buckets be lowered slowly to allow fish more time to escape.
Much of the project area north and south of the existing bridge is in very shallow water, putting sturgeon in close proximity to the vessels and propellers.
2013-2014 Mortalities Likely to Have Resulted from Vessel Strike:
“Seeing that such a large percentage of dead sturgeon have been struck by a vessel, slowing down all vessels in the construction zone would appear to be a practical, immediate precaution which would give the sturgeon more time to detect and avoid the propellers,” Riverkeeper patrol boat captain John Lipscomb said.
“The situation is urgent. Statistics like these on sturgeon mortality have never been seen before in the Hudson, and they must not be ignored,” Lipscomb said. “These endangered species cannot be protected by a paper permit, only by action.”
Riverkeeper continues to monitor the Tappan Zee Bridge construction project to ensure it complies with terms meant to protect the health of the river. In 2013, Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson reached an agreement with New York State that included strict standards for dredging and other in-river construction, environmental monitoring and funding for restoration projects.
In 2013, Riverkeeper documented poor dredging practices, later corrected, that threatened to contaminate the river. In 2014, Riverkeeper alerted the DEC to illegal construction at a Tappan Zee Bridge staging area in Coeymans, resulting in a $10,000 fine against the company and $55,000 payment toward an environmental project.
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A Convergence of Issues<p>The unequal impacts of a changing climate have become extremely clear in 2020, so equity has come to the fore of climate conversations in every corner of the country. A global deadly pandemic continues to rage out of control in the U.S., heat waves are setting new temperature records, wildfires are scorching American Western states, and the hurricane season has already made it to the end of the alphabet for naming storms. In all cases, low-income, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are bearing a disproportionate amount of the impacts.</p><p>"Today, the scab is off, the ugly reality of injustice is hitting us up close and personal, made more realistic by this COVID pandemic," Bullard says.</p><p>This year the decidedly youthful focus on intersectionality is a big part of what defines the transformation of the climate movement. Climate is not just an environmental issue, according to youth activists. It's also a racial justice issue, an economic issue, and an access-to-health care issue.</p><p>"Environmental justice is really seeing the intersection of these issues," says Alex Rodriguez, a community organizer with the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, which aims to make environmental issues a priority for the state's elected leaders. The group is now focusing their efforts on the coming election and recently succeeded in persuading the state to allow absentee voting in November. "We want people to be safe when casting their vote," says Rodriguez, 26, whose fellow grassroots committee members range from age 16 to 60.</p><p>Rodriguez, who also serves on the equity and environmental justice working group for the Governor's Council on Climate Change, says, "We see our programmatic work as a way to help lawmakers see what they can do to improve the dignity of those suffering from environmental racism, systematic racism, and economic oppression."</p><p>Seeing the overlap and bringing these issues together is a strength that Bullard says was missing from the civil rights organizing he was involved with in the 1960s. He says 2020 is unique in many ways.</p><p>"The number of marchers is unprecedented, from different economic, ethnic, and racial groups—an awakening unlike any that I've seen on this Earth in over 70 years," Bullard says. "Today, the different movements are converging, and I think that convergence makes for greater potential for success."</p>
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