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Georgia DNR Continues Efforts to Return Lake Sturgeon to the Coosa River Basin

In an ongoing effort to reintroduce lake sturgeon to the Coosa River Basin, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) will be releasing more than 3,200 fingerlings to the Oostanaula River over the coming weeks.  WRD began researching the possibility of initiating a long-term effort to reintroduce the threatened fish more than seven years ago, with the first restocking taking place in December 2002.  To date, more than 3,000 fingerlings have been released in the Coosa River Basin.

According to WRD, the fish seem to have adapted well and are thriving in the river.   “We have had six reports from anglers that have spotted sturgeon while fishing and each time the fish appeared to be healthy and foraging for food,” said Wayne Probst, Northwest Region Supervisor for WRD’s Fisheries Management Section.  “We’ve also had two reports from anglers that caught sturgeon while fishing and were able to release the fish unharmed.  One of the fish caught was about 18 inches in length, indicating a growth of around 12 inches over the past year.”  

In order to alert local anglers to the presence of lake sturgeon and what to do if one is caught, WRD has posted signs at all boat ramps and easily accessible fishing banks along the river.   Lake sturgeon cannot be harvested and must be released unharmed as soon as possible.  If anglers catch a sturgeon, it should be returned to the water quickly.  Sturgeon should not be kept on a stringer, kept in a live well or otherwise stressed in a manner that could cause it harm.  If the fish is hooked deeply, the angler should cut the line as close as possible to the hook and release the fish with the hook.

WRD’s reintroduction of the lake sturgeon is two-fold.  One reason for stocking lake sturgeon is to reestablish a native sport fish to Georgia waters.  Anglers reported good harvests of lake sturgeon in Georgia waters as recently as the early 1960s.  However, the fish suddenly disappeared.  Considering the longevity of lake sturgeon and the heavy harvests reported by some anglers, over-harvest was likely a factor in the disappearance of the Coosa River fish.  WRD believes the species can once again be part of the river ecosystem and provide some harvest if monitored and managed carefully.

    The second reason for restoring the species addresses the conservation of Georgia’s rare species.  In a recent survey completed by WRD, 72% of Georgians supported the allocation of financial and personnel resources for managing and conserving imperiled species.  “This is an excellent example of how WRD is working to conserve and protect Georgia’s native species,” said Chuck Coomer, Chief of WRD’s Fisheries Management Section.  “By reintroducing lake sturgeon, Georgians are contributing to the conservation of a fascinating species.”  It will take more than a decade of annual stockings before the fish can reach adequate numbers to sustain a healthy population.  It may take an additional 15 years before the fish are large enough and mature enough to support a controlled harvest.

Scientists believe pollution, over fishing and other factors have contributed to the decline of the species nationwide.  Thanks to the efforts of concerned citizens and a variety of government agencies, much of the pollution in the Coosa system has been eliminated and the Coosa can once again support lake sturgeon.

Children from the Floyd County and City of Calhoun school systems will help release the fish to the river.  “It’s important to involve children in conservation programs such as this,” said Coomer.  “Not only are they learning an important lesson in conserving Georgia’s natural resources, but their actions today will have an impact on future generations.  Many of these children will have children of their own by the time these sturgeon are able to be harvested.”

Lake sturgeon are long lived and can obtain weights of over 100 pounds.  They have a very low reproduction rate, taking 14-23 years to sexually mature and then only spawning every 7-9 years in their remaining range, which is concentrated mainly in the Great Lakes region.  However, WRD biologists predict that the species will mature faster and reproduce more frequently in the warmer waters of the Coosa River system.  Historically, this has proven to be true for species that inhabit both cold and warm bodies of water.  

Originally considered a nuisance because they would entangle angler’s nets, sturgeon had little value and were wastefully slaughtered in much the same way as the American Buffalo.  About 1860, their value increased dramatically as the demand for their flesh, eggs (used for caviar), and other products increased.  Over-harvest quickly occurred and their numbers dropped dramatically.  In addition to over-harvest, dams that block spawning movements and water pollution also are to blame.  Current population numbers are estimated to be less than 1 percent of their original abundance.  Despite the drastic decline in sturgeon numbers, the demand for their eggs and flesh remains high.  Because of this demand, poaching has become a concern that further threatens the species.

For more information on lake sturgeon and their reintroduction to the Coosa River Basin, visit the WRD website at www.georgiawildlife.com and click on the fishing icon, or contact the Northwest Region Fisheries Management Office at (706) 624-1161.

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