How much will it cost to protect an endangered fish in South Carolina? The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) wants local utility Santee Cooper to make several changes to its dams on Marion and Moultrie lakes, which would help endangered shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum) to pass through the dams and breed. But Santee Cooper says the changes NMFS wants will cost more than $100 million.

This all comes up as Santee Cooper's license to operate the hydropower dams, which were built in the 1940s, are up for renewal.

NMFS is asking for a few specific changes to the dams to help sturgeon move from the lakes to the fast-moving river areas where they would spawn. The agency wants the flow of water to be increased from 17 to 65 cubic meters per second during spawning season so the sturgeon can more easily pass through the structures. The agency also wants fish ladders or other passage devices installed within the next five years.

How important are these changes? In a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates the dams, the NMFS wrote, "We have determined the proposed action [to continue operating the Santee Cooper dams] is likely to appreciably reduce the likelihood of both the survival and recovery of the shortnose sturgeon in the wild," according to The State.

Shortnose sturgeon can be found throughout the eastern U.S., although their numbers are low wherever they occur. The species's population was devastated in the first half of the 20th century by overharvesting for caviar, pollution and, in the Southeast, dams which limited the fish's access to breeding sites. They were listed as endangered in 1967 under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, the precursor to the modern Endangered Species Act enacted in 1973.

Photo: Shortnose sturgeon, via Wikipedia