Photo by “The River Press”
Have you ever heard of a fish that’s lived on the Earth since the time of the dinosaurs’? The fish, which has existed for about 70 million years, is now on the brink of extinction. This fish is – pallid sturgeon.
In 1887, Fort Benton newspaper – “The River Press” – reported that a sturgeon monster was caught in the Missouri River.
“-Albert Luken claims the championship as a fisherman, and rightly too, as he pulled out with hook and line this morning a monster sturgeon 5 1/2 feet in length weighing 55 lbs. So far as known this is the biggest fish ever caught at this place.-”
Photo by Ken Bouc; Nebraska Games and Parks Commission
At that time nobody knew that it was a pallid sturgeon, because the fish was only recognized as a species in 1905 by S. A. Forbes and R. E. Richardson. The species can be easily confused with shallow sturgeon as it looks very much alike. It has small eyes, because it cannot use them to get food. Pallid sturgeon have whiskers and barbells that hang out – centric organs that it would use to see what is going on down in the muddy waters below it. If you look at the fish, you can see that it is flat on the bottom – another adaptation to live in the underworld of the river.
In 1990 pallid sturgeon was listed as endangered specie as only about 50 wild adults were left. The wild fish is dying out because they all are 50 years old and that the possible end of its natural life span.
The evidence shows that adults can live for about 50 years and there is no impediment in their lifecycle. The small pallid sturgeon raised in the hatchery to 2 inch size also survives in the river. Scientists believe that the number of pallid sturgeon reduced because of reproduction problem. The larval doesn’t survive in the river due to man-made dams and reservoirs. Anne Tews, a fisheries biologist from “Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks” explains:
“We assume the problem is somewhere with spawning, reproduction and recruitment from that first-level stage. The best evidence we have – it looks like those eggs when they are first hatched and go down the river, they have to go for a hundred of miles. This distance for the sturgeon larval is challenging as there is something there that kills the larval.”
Since 1992, the fish have been raised in hatcheries. When the little pallids reach at least the 2-inch size, they are released into the river wearing a small radio so that scientists can locate the fish and find out whether it is ready to reproduce.
“We have not seen any problems with the sturgeon installing radio in the fish – they seem to adapt very well to their radios,” – Tews said.
It takes a long time – about 12-15 years – for a pallid sturgeon to mature, so the first hatchery class, that was spawned out in 1997 and stocked in 1998, is just starting to become sexually mature. Last year – 2012 – was the first year that some of the fish were ready for spawning.
“Now we will be able to learn more about the spawning behavior and if there things that could be done to get them to have naturally wild recruited fish,” – Tews commented.
Today more than just releases are being done to save pallid sturgeon. There is an operation program telling anglers about the species being endangered and the difference between the sturgeons. It is now illegal to catch pallid sturgeon of any size and keep any sturgeon that is more than 30 inches long.
There is no question now that there are a lot more pallid sturgeon there were 10 years ago because of the hatchery program. The problem is that the fish now are only artificially propagated – no wild fish are being recruited from the population.- Those involved into saving the species, however, believe that once the population of the pallid surgeon is successfully restored, it will be delisted and become available for sportfishing. For now we should all try to save the species from dying out. If you accidentally catch it, please release it back to the river!
Here is a shortened version of the documentary “In Murky Waters: The Plight of the Pallid Sturgeon” provided to us by “Montana Wildlife, Fish and Parks”
Here is a part of a recorded phone interview with Anne Tews, a fisheries biologist from “Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks”
- Alina Fattakhova, Communications Intern