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Sixteen years ago, when aquatic biologists started reintroducing a prehistoric-looking, bony-plated species of fish into southeastern rivers, puzzled anglers sent photos to the state wildlife agencies, asking for identification.
“The lake sturgeon hadn’t been in the river since the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, and a lot of people didn’t know what they were,” says Dr. Bernie Kuhajda, an aquatic biologist at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI). “Even before we had an organized monitoring program, the first indication that we were successful in our reintroduction was from anglers.”
Once found naturally in the Cumberland, Coosa and Tennessee river systems in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia, lake sturgeon by the 1960s were all but gone due to dams, water pollution and overfishing for both meat and caviar. One by one, the problems were addressed. The federal government outlawed commercial harvesting and required fishermen to immediately release any sturgeon they accidentally caught. The 1972 Clean Water Act eliminated many of the pollutants that tend to accumulate in the bodies of the long-lived fish. And the Tennessee Valley Authority and other power-generating agencies began maintaining a constant river flow, bubbling oxygen into the water spilling off the dams and restoring the conditions in which the fish thrive. In 2000, both the 10-organization Tennessee River Lake Sturgeon Working Group and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources released the first captive-raised lake sturgeon into the Tennessee and Coosa rivers. A third initiative focusing on the Cumberland River system of Tennessee and Kentucky was launched in 2002.
Area residents quickly rallied around the armored “river giant” dating back 140 million years. “It’s always good for federal agencies, state agencies and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to have a more charismatic animal to reintroduce,” says Kuhajda. “If you’re reintroducing a little minnow or darter, it may not get that much public excitement. But when you’re reintroducing an ancient sturgeon that could get up to seven feet long and lives over 100 years, that can catch the imagination of the public.”
Each year, southeastern scientists acquire eggs from healthy sturgeon in Wisconsin, where the fish are plentiful, and hatch them at a facility in Warm Springs, Georgia. The tiny fish are then reared at various federal and state hatcheries and TNACI. To date, approximately 150,000 fingerlings have been released in the Upper Tennessee River and its tributaries, along with 30,000 in the Cumberland River and 85,000 in the Coosa. Students from Gap Creek Elementary School, located a few miles from a major put-in site at the French Broad River near Knoxville, Tennessee, release their “adopted” fishes as part of a class conservation project.
Three years ago, the individual restoration groups banded together to secure a large federal grant, coordinate their efforts, and under a new name—the Southeast Lake Sturgeon Management Team—release and monitor the sturgeon each fall. Although the fish isn’t considered federally threatened or endangered because it’s doing well in some northern regions, about half of the fish’s home states, including those in the Blue Ridge region, list it as endangered.
The ultimate goal of the program is to generate a reproducing, self-sustaining population. Since the males take up to 15 years to mature, and the females even longer—20 to 33 years—the effort will likely continue until 2025.
“All our partners realize that this is an extremely long-term project that we’ve got going,” says Kuhajda. “But because these are such cool fishes, everyone agrees it’s worth the time and effort we put into it.”