Recent federal plans to protect a rare fish from extinction will add to legal arguments against a $600 million port expansion at Savannah, while possibly complicating negotiations to relicense major hydroelectric dams in South Carolina.
The Atlantic sturgeon, a large bony fish whose once abundant populations were depleted by overfishing, pollution and dam construction, has been declared an endangered species by the National Marine Fisheries Service. That will result in greater protections for the fish and could lead to saving more Atlantic sturgeon habitat along the East Coast, including in South Carolina.
It’s too early to assess the full impacts of the listing in the Palmetto State, but environmental attorney Frank Holleman said it should bolster his case against deepening the port of Savannah along the Georgia-South Carolina border.
The Southern Environmental Law Center and the Savannah River Maritime Commission have appealed state permits in an attempt to stop the project – which they say will lower water quality, threaten wildlife and destroy marshes along the river.
“This will be another issue in our appeal,” said Holleman, an attorney for the law center. “The well-being of the Atlantic sturgeon is more important than it was before.”
The Atlantic sturgeon is a larger cousin of the shortnose sturgeon, a fish that is already a major stumbling block for approval of licenses for dams operated by Duke Energy and Santee Cooper. Santee Cooper estimates the company might have to spend $100 million to modify dam operations just for the shortnose sturgeon.
Mollie Gore, a spokeswoman for Santee Cooper, said the state-owned utility does not think the Atlantic sturgeon listing will delay approval of a license for dams serving lakes Marion and Moultrie. But Gore said the listing could require changes in dam operations, possibly in how fish-passage equipment is designed to help sturgeon get up river.
“We expect there will be some change ... in what we are required to do to accommodate the sturgeon,” she said.
Both Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon migrate between the ocean and freshwater, but dams built in the early 1900s have blocked that passage and reduced populations of both species in South Carolina.
Duke Energy spokeswoman Rita Sipe said her company has planned to protect the Atlantic sturgeon. But power companies remain at odds with conservation groups over whether their dams release enough water to help sturgeon recover from their endangered status.
The Atlantic sturgeon “is very much imperiled, and it is important to restore it,” said Gerrit Jobsis, a Southeast representative for American Rivers who has been involved in discussions with Duke and Santee Cooper.
Atlantic sturgeon, which can grow up to 15 feet long, weigh hundreds of pounds and live a century. A large Atlantic sturgeon, said to be more than 300 pounds, was documented in Columbia in a 1930s news story.