The Atlantic sturgeon is a step closer to getting federal listing as a threatened or endangered species.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced Oct. 2 that they were initiating a "status review" to determine whether the sturgeon should receive protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The action stems from a petition filed with the agencies earlier this year by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, a Colorado-based environmental group, which called on the agencies to consider listing the species because it was "seriously imperiled."

The decision by the agencies kicks off a process during which scientists will gather available information about the health of the population. The agencies must decide by June 2, 1998 - 12 months from the receipt of the petition - whether the species deserves listing.

Listing determinations must be made solely on the best scientific information available.

If they decide federal protection is warranted, the agencies will issue a proposed rule to list the species as either threatened or endangered. The rule would be open for comment for another year, after which a final decision would be made. That means the species could not be listed before the summer of 1999.