Shovelnose Sturgeon Return
The month of May is a pivotal season in Ohio, the fulcrum from the cold and wet spring, to the sweltering summer sure to follow. Dogwoods spatter their white blossoms across the hillsides, and the edges of upland streams are dotted with gravelly smallmouth bass nests. Turkey hunters take to the woods. It all happens about the same time every year - nature's clockwork. But this May, beneath surface of the Scioto River, something new may be going on for the first time in half a century: sturgeon spawning.
Thanks to a private-public partnership, shovelnose sturgeon have come back to the Buckeye state after nearly a 50-year hiatus. It's considered an endangered species by the state of Ohio.
Water pollution and locks and dams eliminated the fish from the state. Not only did dams in the Ohio River prevent these highly mobile sturgeon from getting to upstream spawning habitats, the flat water impoundments behind them offer no habitat. If form follows function, then the shovelnose sturgeon is the prototype for a body form shaped for fast water. The spindly body and flat wedge-shaped snout allow the fish to take up station in fast-flowing chutes as it peruses the bottom for insects, snails, mussels and crayfish - prey quite vulnerable to water pollution.
But opportunity knocks.
According to ODOW biologist, Scott Schell, who leads the effort to restore this native fish, the Scioto River is cleaner now than it has been in decades. Moreover, the section of the Scioto where the shovelnose sturgeon were stocked has the largest number of fish and macroinvertebrate species than any other Ohio stream -- and that speaks to high-quality habitat. The first dam on the Scioto that can block fish movement is 153 miles above its mouth on the Ohio River in the city of Columbus, and that means the shovelnose sturgeon will have room to roam.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Carterville Fishery Resources Office, located in Marion, Illinois, routinely monitors shovelnose sturgeon populations in the lower Ohio and Mississippi rivers, where the species is much more abundant, and even affords commercial and recreational fisheries. It's these surveys that provide a source of sturgeon for the ODOW.
The five-year reintroduction effort is in its third year. Only 35 shovelnose sturgeon made it to the Scioto River in 2002; this spring 153 fish made the trip from near Paducah, Kentucky, to Circleville, Ohio. Last year the USFWS shipped sac-fry to ODOW's Kincaid State Fish Hatchery where the sturgeon were grown out and stocked into the Scioto.
Those young fish were the product of an unusual partnership involving state and federal governments, private enterprise and academia.
"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been the ligament -- the connective tissue that pulled this partnership together," said Greg Conover, the USFWS fishery biologist who leads sturgeon surveys on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
Conover provided adult fish to Logan Hollow Fish Farm in Murphysboro, Illinois, a private commercial hatchery working with Southern Illinois University on early life history studies of shovelnose sturgeon. Some of the offspring went to university researchers, the others went to the ODOW. The partnership will provide more young fish over the next two years.
All of the young fish put in the Scioto River will be marked with an injected liquid-plastic tag visible just under the skin on the snout. Three years from now when biologists seek to measure success, they'll look for young shovelnose sturgeon without marks -- fish spawned in the wild.
"Biologists almost always want to get returns on tagged fish," said Conover. "But in this case, when shovelnose sturgeon show up without those little fluorescent tags on their snouts, we'll know our partnership has paid dividends -- wild sturgeon."
While it may be a number of years before Ohio anglers can set a trot line or deadline fish for shovelnose sturgeon, this private-public partnership is large step forward.
But first things first says Schell: "After five years of transplants and stocking, I hope a few adult fish find each other on a riffle and spawn. That's when we'll know things are working and we're on track."
And that could be the fulcrum in returning this native fish to native waters, and an opportunity for Buckeye anglers to catch a swimming dinosaur.
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