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Protection ordered for gulf sturgeon

Federal agencies must set aside parts of rivers in Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi to protect the endangered gulf sturgeon, one of the world's oldest fish species, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The ruling forces the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to pinpoint areas where sturgeon lay eggs and keeps the Army Corps of Engineers from dredging those areas, said New Orleans Sierra Club official Barry Kohl.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision will affect parts of the Suwannee and Apalachicola rivers in Florida.

Sturgeon are the oldest living species of fish, dating back 250-million years. They can live up to 50 years and weigh up to 500 pounds. They spend spring and summer in coastal rivers, and the rest of the year in the Gulf of Mexico.

The gulf sturgeon was listed as threatened in 1991. Fisheries experts say the decline has been caused by overfishing, dams and pollution.

When a species is classified as threatened, Fish and Wildlife must determine and preserve its "critical habitat," the area necessary for its survival and conservation. However, the agency decided it was "not prudent" to do so for sturgeon.

The New Orleans Audubon Society sued the corps and Interior Department in 1991, challenging that decision. A federal district judge rejected the society's arguments in 1998, but the 5th Circuit reversed that decision Thursday.