Editorial, Wednesday, June 23, 1999

CATEGORY: EDT Editorials

AUTHOR: JOER

Editorial, Wednesday, June 23, 1999

The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway attracts environmental controversy like molasses attracts flies.

The latest potential environmental storm swirls around an obscure fish, the Alabama sturgeon, that is about to be placed on the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The fish, once thought to be extinct, has been found to survive in a free-flowing stretch of the Alabama River, which is part of the larger Tenn-Tom Waterway system and watershed.

Waterway officials and business interests in both Mississippi and Alabama fear that endangered status for the fish would spell disaster for shipping on the waterway and on-shore business related to barge traffic. The waterway connects the Tennessee River at the mouth of Yellow Creek in Tishomingo County with the Gulf of Mexico through Mobile Bay. Its completion hung in limbo for years while a court fight about environmental concerns raged in the U.S. District Court for Northern Mississippi. The late Judge William Keady of Greenville ended the litigation when he declared that construction had proceeded so far on the waterway that stopping the work and undertaking reconstruction was a moot point. His ruling stood, and the waterway opened in the early 1980s.

Now, as then, the environmental issue is one of balance as well as protection. The Alabama sturgeon represents life as it once was in the Tombigbee/Alabama riparian environment. It was caught in large numbers and, reflective of the times, thought to be inexhaustible.

Technology, depletion of numbers and the damming of free-flowing rivers all contributed to its decline to its decline. The prospect of declaring it an endangered species, with potentially damaging implications for the region’s economy and a costly court fight, begs for reasonable discussion.

The Alabama sturgeon deserves respect, as do all living things. Its survival is desirable, but the cost of saving the species must be placed in perspective.

It is unreasonable and verges on the irrational to believe that major economic enterprises dependent on the waterway and river system and people whose lives would be adversely affected by an economic decline should be made inferior to the fish’s reintroduction to its original, wide habitat.

Enough good environmental science surely exists to save the Alabama sturgeon, if it in fact is a separate species and not part of the close-knit fish family that includes the Mississippi River shovelnose sturgeon and the pallid sturgeon.

If the fish survives in that limited stretch of the Alabama River is there not another compatible habitat for the fish, even if not in Alabama and in the Mobile River basin?

The conflicts that arise within the labyrinth of agencies receiving federal funding like the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Tenn-Tom Waterway Authority illustrate how easily the federal government divides against itself and makes battles with other agencies more important than the public interest.

The central question about the Alabama sturgeon’s survival should not be how to turn back the hands of time but how to move the fish forward into a new millennium of existence without upsetting the balance of human life.