Sturgeon: The misunderstood fish?


University of Florida researcher Frank Chapman holds a shortnose sturgeon Thursday at the UF Aquatic Lab on NW 71st Drive.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, May 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 30, 2006 at 11:46 p.m.
The sturgeon is one misunderstood fish, according to a University of Florida researcher studying the species.
Misunderstood by boaters who get whacked by leaping sturgeon, like a woman who recently suffered facial and spinal fractures on the Suwannee River.
Misunderstood by researchers who espouse competing theories about why sturgeon jump. Misunderstood even by officials charged with protecting the threatened species.
After decades of study, UF researcher Frank Chapman says he understands sturgeon better than nearly anyone. But his plan to breed fish to restock the Suwannee and build a commercial industry elsewhere have been met with resistance.
"The sturgeon is in trouble," he said, "and we better do something about it because the fish aren't going to do it themselves."
The sturgeon is a holdover from the age of dinosaurs and looks the part. The fish is boneless except for hard plates lining its back. A vacuum-like tube extends below its snout to suck up food. The Gulf sturgeon that migrates to the Suwannee grows up to 8 feet long and 200 pounds.
Some species, such as the beluga sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, grow up to 30 feet long and weigh 1,800 pounds. The eggs from those rare sturgeon can cost more than $100 an ounce. A couple pounds of meat can fetch a similar price.
"It's the most valuable food there is in the world," Chapman said.
Such value led to overfishing that decimated the population of sturgeon worldwide. The Gulf sturgeon was once so prevalent that Florida bars served its salted caviar like peanuts, Chapman said. Today 3,000 are believed to remain in the Suwannee, the biggest population in the state.
Sturgeon gorge themselves on shrimp and shellfish in the Gulf of Mexico in the winter and migrate to the Suwannee in spring. But just a handful come to lay eggs. The remainder stay at the bottom of the river for seven months or more, eating nothing and keeping nearly motionless.
Except when they jump. And when they jump, boaters cruising by can suffer the consequences.
Kenneth City resident Dawn E. Poirier was smacked by a jumping sturgeon while boating on the Suwannee on April 22. She suffered a spinal fracture and facial injuries requiring plastic surgery.
Newberry Elementary School Principal Lacy Redd had a similar experience on Memorial Day weekend 2002. She was hit by a 6-foot-long, 125 pound sturgeon that caused her to suffer five broken ribs and a collapsed lung.
"It was a freak accident for sure," she said.
Scientists have different theories about why sturgeon jump. One suggests the fish are communicating. Some say the fish are trying to shake off parasites, or perhaps they're startled.
Chapman rejects them all, though he doesn't have an explanation of his own. It's one of several matters in which he disagrees with his colleagues. But his biggest disagreement involves recovery plans.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the Gulf sturgeon to be a threatened species in 1991. Gail Carmody, the service's project leader for sturgeon, said recovery efforts have focused on reducing threats.
In the Panhandle, she said, those threats include dams and water quality. In the Suwannee, water flow has become a central issue.
UF researcher Daryl Parkyn embarked Thursday on the northern Withlacoochee River to check for sturgeon eggs. He found the Suwannee tributary so shallow it was difficult to navigate by boat, due to dry conditions in recent weeks.
He worries about levels dropping lower due to human interference. In the Withlacoochee, a nearby water-bottling plant is drawing from springs that feed the river. In the lower Suwannee, new regulations mean 10 percent of the water can be drained.
"Flow is what determines if the fish are going to pull off a successful spawning," Parkyn said.
Protection plans Chapman isn't worried about such threats. He says the sturgeon population is already reduced to such an extent that recovery efforts will only sustain current numbers.
He cites the fish's reproductive behavior as the main reason. Female Gulf sturgeon can take a dozen years or more to reach sexual maturity. While they release hundreds of thousands of eggs, just a handful might survive to adulthood.
So Chapman wants to breed sturgeon and release them in a limited restocking. He started doing so in 1989, before he was forced to stop due to the species' protected status. He said state officials were being unnecessarily cautious in trying to prevent the genetic watering-down of the species, using regulations to protect the species to impede its recovery.
"The Endangered Species Act is the best-written piece of legislation on Earth and we're mocking it," he said.
The act has also restricted sturgeon aquaculture. Exotic sturgeon are raised in a handful of Florida farms, but regulations prevent further imports and ban native species from being raised. Carmody said regulations prevent the native species from being killed, even if the fish are farm raised.
But Chapman said farm-raised sturgeon can prevent poaching of wild fish. Chapman points to his experience in California as the template, where he helped establish the farm-raised sturgeon industry in the late 1980s. The industry is now estimated to be worth $15 million annually, according to environmental groups.
Carmody said the agency is more interested in protecting wild sturgeon than breeding and restocking efforts. She would rather concentrate on educating people about sturgeon, putting restocking on the bottom of the priority list.
"Our efforts are better spent on addressing and reducing threats," she said.
She said changes could be made in the review of the species' recovery plan over the next couple years. Chapman bristles at the suggestion of any further delays.
"We're killing this fish," he said. "We're loving it to death."
Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 338-3176 or crabben@gvillesun.com.

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