Southeastern Fishes Council
Dedicated to the Conservation of Southeastern Fishes


Scientists Hope Tagged Sturgeon Will Lead Them To Others
April 15, 2007

Release from: Jamon Smith
Tuscaloosa News (Alabama)

A rare fish that was caught in the Alabama River more than a week ago after not being seen in the wild for nearly a decade may lead biologists to others of its kind when it's released back into the wild in the next day or two.

Kim Nix, the public information manager for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the Alabama sturgeon that was caught in a gill net April 3 by two researchers at Claiborne Lock and Dam, will be released early Monday or Tuesday morning in the same area where it was caught.

Nix said fisheries biologists hope that the fish, which has been recovering from surgery in a tank at the Marion Fish Hatchery in Perry County, will lead them to other Alabama sturgeons and help them determine the fish's range and habits.

Researchers operated on the fish to determine its sex and to place a sonic tracker in its body cavity.

"Not a lot is known about them and not a lot have been caught," Nix said.

"We don't know how many are out there and that's why the tracking information is so important," she said.

Nix said the 3.7-pound, 31-inch long sturgeon, which is the second largest ever captured, is the only Alabama sturgeon in the state that has a tracker in it.

Bernie Kuhajda, a fish biologist with the University of Alabama's Biological Sciences Division who has been studying the Alabama sturgeon for the last 15 years, said when the fish was first caught, biologists hoped it was a female.

If it had been, they would have inseminated it with sperm they've kept frozen since 1999, when the last Alabama sturgeon was caught.

"Alabama sturgeons metabolisms are slow, and they produce so many eggs that it takes them two or three years to get ready to spawn," Kuhajda said.

"So the males sometimes skip a year when their testes don't swell, and that's why we couldn't get any [fresh] sperm out of this one," he said. "We do hope this one will at least lead us to a female."

Kuhajda said the Alabama sturgeon is one of the rarest invertebrates in North America.

In the 75 million years the fish has existed, biologist say they don't know if the Alabama sturgeons' numbers were ever common, but they were greatly reduced throughout the 1900s because of damming.

"It's so rare because of dams," Kuhajda said. "The dams that Alabama Power has put on the Alabama River and the [U.S] Army Corps of Engineers and companies that assist with barge traffic."

"They stopped the migration of the sturgeon upstream and impaired the development of the larval sturgeons," he said.

"We feel that the high flows during the spring trigger them to spawn, but when you got these dams holding back water it lessons the spring impulse the fish used to have when it was a free flowing river."

"The dams have also really changed the ecosystem of the river, possibly killing off certain kinds of bugs and fish that the Alabama sturgeon eats," he said.

Kuhajda said in 1993 the Alabama sturgeon was proposed to be listed as extinct because no specimens of the fish had been collected since 1985.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service thought it was extinct, so they decided to list it as such in 1994," Kuhajda said. "But, what's illogical about that decision is that a specimen was collected in late 1993. And throughout the 1990s, an additional six specimens were collected."

Kuhajda said it wasn't until May 2000 that the Alabama sturgeon was placed on the endangered species list after an environmental lawyer from Birmingham sued to have it listed.

Kuhajda said industries, such as pulp, paper mills, barge operators and Alabama Power, opposed the Alabama sturgeon being listed as endangered. As an endangered species, it and its environment would become protected, which could shut down commerce along the river.

A coalition of businesses from those industries claimed that listing the Alabama sturgeon as an endangered species would cost the state $15 billion, but that listing has not adversely affected the industries since it was made.

However, Kuhajda said, that still hasn't stopped the business coalition from attempting to have the Alabama sturgeon taken off the endangered species list and declared extinct.

On Feb. 8, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Montgomery overturned the business coalition's appeal to have the Alabama sturgeon taken off the endangered species list.

"There's more politics involved with this species than any other in Alabama," Kuhajda said.

"Now that another Alabama sturgeon has been collected in 2007, it may start up another political circus," he said.