Federal Authorities Step in to Protect Paddlefish

Say Tennessee Wildlife Commission failed in its responsibility

Thursday, July 9, 2009 - by Richard Simms

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stepped in to protect paddlefish on Kentucky Lake after apparently determining that the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission failed in its responsibilty to protect the species.

In a recent news release, the USFWS announced that it will deny the issuance of any export permits for paddlefish products (including caviar) harvested from Kentucky Lake. Paddlefish roe (eggs) are an excellent form of caviar. Paddlefish caviar had become more popular in light of declining populations of sturgeon overseas.

Under an international agreement to protect wildlife called the CITES agreement (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora), the USFWS has the authority to allow or deny the export of wildlife products.
The USFWS cites studies which indicate that Tennessee River paddlefish could be being overfished.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency implemented a five year plan to reduce the harvest... however following pressure from the commercial fishing industry, including a lawsuit, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission recently adopted less restrictive harvest regulations than those proposed by biologists, including a decrease in minimum size limit and an increase in season length for paddlefish.

As a result of the TWRC's action, the USFWS has stepped in to protect Kentuckly Lake paddlefish. However the recent action by the Service does not impact paddlefish harvest on any other Tennessee River reservoir.

Below is the entire USFWS News Release:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will deny the issuance of CITES export permits for paddlefish and products (caviar) harvested from Kentucky Lake in Tennessee during the recently completed 2008-2009 fishing season. Kentucky Lake is an impoundment of the Tennessee River in western Tennessee and western Kentucky and provides at least 63 percent of all caviar harvested in Tennessee. This action will not impact the domestic sale of the caviar, but will prevent its export.

The Service has determined that the harvest level taking place under current state regulations is not sustainable and this makes it impossible to meet the requirements for issuance of export permits under provisions contained in the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). The specific decision or finding is the “non-detriment finding”, meaning that the Service is unable to find that the export of paddlefish and its products from Kentucky Lake in Tennessee is not detrimental to the survival of the species.

CITES is an international treaty with the goal of ensuring that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Under CITES, specimens of listed species are subject to certain controls when they are exported/imported in international trade. All import, export, re-export and introduction from the species covered by CITES must be authorized through a system of permits. Prior to issuance of a CITES export permit, two positive findings must be made: that the product proposed for export was legally acquired and that the export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species.

Commercial harvest of paddlefish in Tennessee is managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). Recent regulatory recommendations by the agency were based on a scientific research study that was published by Bettoli and Scholten in 2005; Assessment of Overfishing and Bycatch for an Exploited Paddlefish Population in the Lower Tennessee River. This study originated from the Service’s concern over the high number of applications for caviar export permits from this lake. The results of this study indicated that paddlefish were indeed being overfished. To address this, the state wildlife agency developed a five-year plan to gradually increase the minimum size limit to protect more mature females from harvest and close the fishing season earlier in spring to decrease the mortality of discarded fish bycatch.

Based on implementation of the State’s five-year management plan, the Service has previously been able to find that the export of paddlefish and its products have not been detrimental to the survival of the species.

However, in 2008, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission deviated from implementation of the State’s five-year management plan and adopted less restrictive harvest regulations than those proposed by the TWRA, including a decrease in minimum size limit and an increase in season length. It is estimated these new regulations enacted for the regulation of paddlefish harvested commercially in Tennessee protect only 7 percent of mature female paddlefish in Kentucky Lake.

The North American paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) is one of two living species of paddlefish in the world. The other species, the Chinese paddlefish (Psephurus gladius), is extremely rare and thought to be close to extinction. The North American paddlefish was once widely distributed throughout the Mississippi River, Gulf Coast drainages, Great Lakes, and southern Ontario waters in Canada. The species’ current distribution remains fairly large, but is largely reduced in comparison to its historic distribution.

Paddlefish are long-lived fish, and can reach ages greater than 25 years. Female paddlefish reach maturity from 8-12 years; depending on the river system they inhabit. Based on a national survey conducted in 2006, paddlefish populations in the State of Tennessee are considered to be declining.

Paddlefish are important because they are one of three egg-bearing (roe) species in the sturgeon family within the United States that are allowed to be exported commercially for their eggs, that are processed into caviar. The other species are the white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) and the shovelnose sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus platorhynchus). North American caviar has increased in value, and the export trade has increased in volume, due to declining stocks in the Caspian Sea sturgeon fisheries.
Each CITES-listed species is placed in one of three Appendices, according to the degree of protection it requires. Appendix I includes species that are threatened with extinction. Trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances. Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival. Appendix III contains species that are protected in at least one country, which has asked the CITES Parties for assistance in controlling trade. Approximately 5,000 species of animals and 28,000 species of plants are currently protected by the treaty which has 175 CITES Party member nations. Paddlefish were listed in Appendix II of CITES in 1992.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.

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