The last of the Pearl River Sturgeon:: Temple-Inland’s decades of damage in a matter of days

The last of the Pearl River Sturgeon:: Temple-Inland’s decades of damage in a matter of daysThe following has been submitted to the Louisiana Senate Environmental Quality Committee as public testimony.Temple-Inland’s release of black liquor has killed much life in the Pearl River. [We’ve written about it before, and we’re sure to write about it again.] The turpentine (organic solvents), the lye, and the demand for oxygen have rendered the river acutely toxic for a short period; and it remains to be seen what long-term chemicals impacts may emerge. The non-functional sludge pond remains a liability; a storage facility for fine sediments and toxics from long ago, waiting to be flooded by high river water.We already know that this acute kill has taken 26 Gulf Sturgeon from the Pearl; 26 individuals from a population of 100-200. So, 10-20% of Gulf Sturgeon in the Pearl have been killed by Temple-Inland. And we haven’t heard what ages of fish were killed. We ask that LDWF release the sexes and sizes of Sturgeon killed.We expect that fines levied against T-I or International Paper could be used to study the Pearl River population of this threatened fish. We expect that fined levied could restore a Pearl River where this fish can thrive. But here are some things we already know, from studies of Gulf Sturgeon in healthier populations, and why that matters.By way of introduction, to make more Pearl River Sturgeon, we need A working forest on the river A river that is slightly acidic to neutral, not basic A river of natural hydrology, cobble bottom, not filled or slowed by development A river unblocked by sills and more dams A river whose water is unrestricted, cool, and clean for the long time it takes for Sturgeon to come back. Sturgeon are large, long-lived fish that are one of the most ancestral species alive today, meaning their way of living where they live and how and what they eat their way of living has done them well for millions of years, until humans began to dominate the land. The large sturgeon caught Saturday August 13th around Poole’s Bluff, likely below it, may have been up to 40 years old. Ecologists look at this fish and see not only its size, but also see it as large vector of energy –this fish takes food from the shelf, Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi Sound, and deposits that energy upstream. So this fish, and all large fish migrating upriver are a resource, but they are also a vital connection within the ecosystem that transports biological material upstream. Sturgeon were a once an abundant fish. Historically, they were culled for breaking fisherman’s nets with their bony plates–there was a fishery for them in 1905, but the US Fish Commission records them as a nuisance fish to Gill Net Fishermen, who mostly killed them in an effort to save their gillnets. Gill nets are still the way the fish are captured for study. They reproduce in abundance but also die in abundance, and the population has never recovered from a general slaughter of the animals 100 years ago.Around this time is when my great great uncle came from Russia to Picayune and began working for Crosby, the landowner whose namesake adorns the Crosby Arboretum off I-59. If you want to see the Forest as it was when Sturgeon were thriving, you can go there. It’s a beautiful place. The forest has long been an economic engine for our region, but it also shades the river and keeps the water cool enough for young of year sturgeon, larval sturgeon that are newly hatched. The Sturgeon in the Pearl are not well-studied, especially not post-Katrina, in part because of their low numbers. But Gulf Sturgeon come up the river each spring as the water warms, and find gravel/cobble bottom, bottom with small rocks with lots of crannies, in eddy fields to spawn. If there’s a lot of silt dumped into the river from Agriculture or from Sprawl development, these cobble bottoms will be covered by that silt. These cobble areas are few below the navigational sills on the Bogue Chitto and Pearl that block many fish from migrating upstream.Sturgeon prefer areas with neutral to slightly acidic pH for spawning, So a paper mill that leaves the water at a pH of 8 is not their friend. The fish leave their eggs (a lot of eggs) in bunches in these areas in spring and early summer, at water temperatures are between 17-22 degrees centigrade. The spawning period lasts a week to a month, depending on temperature. The larval fishes start dying in large number above 25 degrees Centigrade. The river is often pretty hot in the summer for reference, highway 90 and below is above 30 degrees Centigrade right now. The newborns need more water in the river, flowing water, places with cobble, small rocks so they can hide, and more trees on the banks in small streams so that the water stays the appropriate temperature.Until the mid 2000’s, the Suwannee River, a population with say around 8000 individuals, had 80 reproducing females, before recently turning a corner. This is the subpopulation that is thriving on the Nature coast of Florida–there are agricultural landuses in the area but most of the mainstem flows through swampland, including two wildlife refuges at the mouth and at the rise of the mainstem. This River has been able to sustain a growing population because almost its entire length is National Refuge.The Pearl and The Pascagoula had around 400 individuals apiece pre-Katrina, and the Pascagoula is estimated to have around 200 individuals post-Katrina. That River is less impaired than the Pearl, so 200 is considered a maximum for the Pearl sub-population. If the healthier Florida rivers only have a tenth of their individuals reproducing, we may have only a few to no reproducing individuals. There are more than 25 dead sturgeon, and the reproductive population in the Pearl may be fewer than 25. To quote Dr O’Connell at UNO, that’s a couple generations of fish, 20-30 years of growth, lost in a matter of days. I’m 32 years old, and Temple-Inland erased any progress the sturgeon has made in my lifetime. If I live long, I may live to see again the Sturgeon population that we had in early August 2011.The black liquor came during the summer, when the larger individuals find deep holes to hold up in, called “holding areas.” The Fish fast while holding, they don’t eat, and lose weight. So it was during this vulnerable period that the Oxygen sag and the lye water and the turpentine and the sulfates and the rest of it hit them. If the liquor is more of a sludge, it will track the sunken channel, which is where those individuals were holding at the time.In October and November, September at the earliest, the adults move from their holding areas to the river mouth, and then into the estuary to eat. Sturgeon are benthic feeders, their mouth is a strange tube that emerges from the bottom of their head, and their whiskers aid their detection of food along the bottom, and they eat worms and insects and clams and invertebrates along the bottom. The juveniles, the 2-6 yr olds stay at the river mouths overwinter and do go as deep, but you’ll see sturgeon occasionally jumping out of Chef Pass. Young of year come downriver in January and February, which is usually a wet time of year for the Pearl. Gulf Sturgeon don’t begin reproducing until their teenage years, so if there isn’t a good reproductive year-class of females holding up the numbers with high reproduction from the high mortality that juveniles experience, it can be more than a decade until good reproduction returns. The fish don’t have a good reproductive year every year, that’s known as “Year-class” dependent. So the class of say, 2000, is going to have a whole lot more individuals than any of the years surrounding it. If we lose that year class, we can lose the population and this kind of population dynamic is why Red Snapper haven’t recovered despite our killing fewer of them. Not only does it take time for individuals to mature, but it takes time for the population to achieve the correct structure. We should fine Temple-Inland, not only for the Fish that died, but for the reproductive individuals, all the fish that it would have mothered. We should be wary of any additional dams placed on the Pearl, because it’s obvious that the dam in Jackson, any others planned, and the two paper mills create impaired conditions on the Pearl, and these conditions have been making it difficult for the Sturgeon to survive. The sill blocks movement of this migratory fish, so even if there is suitable habitat above the sill, in cooler upland waters, it’s harder for the reproductive adults to reach them due to that barrier. There is already a proposed restoration project that would enable fish to navigate around the sill.But realize that even if that happens, those new habitats won’t be used for 12 years or so, the sturgeon is a slow re-colonizer, and it will probably be a fish that is unborn today that re-inhabits those areas. So to make more Sturgeon, we need A working forest on the river A river that is slightly acidic to neutral, not basic A river of natural hydrology, cobble bottom, not filled or slowed by development A river unblocked by sills and more dams A river whose water is unrestricted, cool, and clean for a long time.Temple-Inland has done decades of destruction in a matter of days. If they were to ” make it right,” it would require not only a lot of work, but also a lot of time. Temple-Inland must fund a Sturgeon survey, but also fund restoration of the river as a home for the fish. We must protect the waters of the Pearl River now more than ever, lest we lose this fish forever.Thank you for your time. Scott Eustis is GRN’s Coastal Wetlands Specialist.

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