On Thursday, April 5, you could cut the tension with a knife – no pun intended – in the State fish holding facilities of Marion State Hatchery and Alabama's Aquatic Biodiversity Center. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division Fisheries Assistant Chief Nick Nichols, with scalpel in hand, made a small incision in the underbelly of the very rare Alabama sturgeon. Those assisting and observing the procedure held their breath… Is it boy or a girl? Is it fertile and healthy? After examining the sturgeon, Nichols announced, "It's a male and he's not in the reproductive phase." It was both good news and bad news for biologists who have been chasing the elusive species for many years.
Forget the bad news that there won't be baby sturgeons in the near future. The good news is that the Alabama sturgeon is on record, the second largest of its species captured, measuring 785 mm (31 inches) and most likely, when released back into the wild, will lead fisheries biologists to others of its kind. The largest Alabama sturgeon on record measured 810 mm (32 inches) and was caught back in 1953 in the Tombigbee River in Sumter County. The last Alabama sturgeon caught was in 1999.
During the recent surgery, a sonic tag was inserted into the fish believed to be the rarest large fish collected in North America in the past seven years. The tag will allow the fish's movements to be tracked to determine if other Alabama sturgeons are in the area and locations where the species migrate upstream to spawn. This is very important information about the species listed as federally endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), said USFWS Warm Springs Hatchery Manager Carlos Echevarría. "The data collected from this unique species will help in the efforts to recover more so they can continue to be studied, propagated, and protected." Spawning conditions don't occur often according to sturgeon experts. In fact, conditions must be perfect in regard to both the male and female meaning both fish must be in the fertile cycle at the same time to successfully spawn. The signal the tracking device will emit for approximately the next four years will help biologists learn about the fish's movements and may lead to the capture a female sturgeon. If that female produces eggs ready for fertilization, they will be mixed with previously frozen male sturgeon sperm to hopefully produce thousands of young.
ADCNR Fisheries Biologist Steve Rider and Biologist Aides Travis Powell and Tom Ringenberg caught the elusive Alabama sturgeon at around 8 a.m. below the Claiborne Lock and Dam on the Alabama River on Tuesday, April 3, 2007. Out gathering data on paddlefish, the three were in disbelief when they found the fish tangled in a net they pulled in. "We were pretty excited because we knew we had something special," said Rider. "We haven't caught one of these since August 1999 and catching a fish this rare shows that the species is hanging on, that they're still out there, and we need to do all we can to preserve and protect the species."
Alabama sturgeon were once found in the Cahaba, Alabama, Black Warrior and Tombigbee River systems. Construction of multi-purpose dams has reduced the historical range of this species significantly. In 1993 the Alabama Sturgeon Conservation Plan was implemented with the support of private organizations and various state and federal agencies. The Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries has taken the lead role in this recovery effort, which includes the collecting, holding and spawning of adult sturgeon to produce young that can be stocked in areas of the state where they were historically found. Intense efforts of Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries personnel have led to the capture of six Alabama sturgeons since that time.
Dr. Bernie Kuhajda, in the Biological Sciences Division of The University of Alabama, has been studying the Alabama sturgeon for nearly 15 years. "After hearing about the capture, I couldn't sleep that night because I was so excited knowing that I would be onsite the next day with such a rare find," Kuhajda said. "Since the species was listed as endangered in 2000, no specimens have been collected. With an ancestry that dates back 75,000 years, finding one now indicates that the species is still part of the Alabama River ecosystem and is something we need to study and protect."
Since the species is listed as endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act, certain regulations must be followed if anglers catch an Alabama sturgeon. Nichols asks for the public's cooperation by saying, "It is imperative that if caught, the fish is released immediately if not showing signs of distress. Take a photo if possible without harming the fish and then call our office to report the catch and location." For more information on the Alabama sturgeon, visit www.outdooralabama.com or www.fws.gov.
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama's natural resources through five divisions: Marine Police, Marine Resources, State Parks, State Lands, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.