The Lawyer and the Sea

Brad Sewell is determined to protect our most endangered marine creatures. Even the ugly ones.

Brad Sewell, a senior attorney in NRDC’s Oceans program, got an early introduction to waterways and wildlife from the halcyon days he spent on the water as a kid. “I’ve loved fishing since I was a boy,” he says, recalling his childhood summers in New Hampshire. As a teenager, Sewell would drive from his hometown of Englewood, New Jersey, out to the seashore whenever he could. “Sometimes I convinced my younger sister to come with me down to Sandy Hook," he remembers. "We'd rent a boat, attach my granddad’s old two-horsepower motor to the back of it, and go out and fish for summer flounder.”

Brad Sewell
Image by Rebecca Greenfield

Sewell still casts a line when he can, but now you’re more likely to find him on the front lines of NRDC's efforts to protect fish whose numbers have declined precipitously, in part because they’ve been fished too much.

A former NRDC intern and policy associate in the 1980s, Sewell earned a law degree in tandem with a master's in public health at Columbia University (where he's now an adjunct professor). He then joined the New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and took on some pro bono cases for NRDC before joining its legal staff in 1998. Since then, Sewell has helped gain protections for a variety of imperiled species, from the tufted puffin to the river herring. Recently, he's turned his focus to the scary-looking Atlantic sturgeon.

Though you might never find the Atlantic sturgeon among the charming creatures in a movie like Finding Nemo, Sewell is understandably intrigued by this remarkable bottom-feeder. “The sturgeon doesn’t have the charisma of sea turtles but still has a lot going for it,” says Sewell, who directs the Oceans program’s Atlantic Coast and federal fisheries activities as well as NRDC’s Everglades Project.

The sturgeon has been around for millions of years, like a dinosaur that dodged extinction—and it looks the part. Similar to its cousins, including the shortnose and gulf sturgeons, the Atlantic variety has tough reptilian scales (called scutes) with thorny ridges that give it a prehistoric presence. “It can grow up to 14 feet long and weigh 800 pounds, and no one knows that it’s there," Sewell says. "It stays close to bottom, swims slowly, and tries to stay out of everyone’s way.”

An Atlantic sturgeon
blickwinkel/Alamy Stock Photo

But in the late 19th century, the Atlantic sturgeon was very much on American minds—and plates. It became such a staple of East Coast menus that Hudson River fishermen nicknamed it “Albany beef.” Its roe was so popular that a sturgeon-fishing boomtown, aptly named Caviar, even sprang up in southern New Jersey along Delaware Bay.

Demand for the freaky-yet-delicious creature quickly pushed the sturgeon to the brink of extinction. Within just a few years of its peak in 1890, the catch dwindled to just 10 percent of previous hauls—and kept declining over the next century. In 1998, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission finally imposed a ban on reeling in the ancient fish with the hope that its population could rebound.

It didn't.

A decade later, population estimates for the Delaware River, once a major sturgeon thoroughfare, were down from a healthy tally of 180,000 to as few as 100 fish, Sewell says. Similar patterns of decline could be seen along the eastern seaboard. Being free of fishermen's lures wasn't enough—sturgeon were also battling a variety of environmental factors.

Despite its rugged exterior and a lifespan of up to 60 years, the Atlantic sturgeon is actually quite vulnerable. It has a low tolerance for the fluctuations in water temperature caused by climate change, and its sluggish speed prevents it from escaping collisions with passing ships or getting caught in commercial nets intended for other fish. Dams, dredging, and pollution are also a problem, especially because, like salmon, it’s born in freshwater before swimming out to sea and eventually returning to rivers and streams to spawn. And if all that isn't enough, females don’t produce offspring until they’re between 5 and 34 years old, so the toll of premature deaths takes years to reverse.

Recognizing all this, Sewell developed an NRDC petition to the federal government asking that the fish be protected under the Endangered Species Act. An initial victory came in February 2012, when the National Marine Fisheries Service listed four distinct population segments of Atlantic sturgeon as endangered and one segment as threatened under the act.

One tricky part is protecting the species' habitat—a key requirement of the endangered listing that's been difficult to meet. For the Atlantic sturgeon, that habitat is massive and could include any number of areas in coastal rivers, bays, and estuaries between Maine and Florida, as well as ocean pathways along the East Coast, where the fish make their long migrations.

With the advocacy group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Sewell and NRDC are determined to secure that critical habitat designation before the clock runs out on the Atlantic sturgeon and it goes the way of the actual dinosaurs.

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