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Paddlefish

PADDLEFISH
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SCIENTIFIC NAME: Polyodon spathula

*2014 Provisional Commercial Paddlefish Season

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CHARACTERISTICS: This fish’s long, paddle-shaped snout accounts for about one-third of its total body length. The snout helps to stabilize the fish as it swims, and it also contains specialized cells that assist in detecting the plankton swarms upon which this species feeds. The skin is smooth. Small individuals are pink on the back and white on the venter; for larger individuals around 10 to 12 inches, the body color changes to bluish gray on the back and cream on the venter. The eyes are tiny compared to the rest of the head and body. On the underside of the snout are two minute barbels in front of a large, toothless mouth. When viewed through the mouth, the gills are large and show the many closely spaced filaments that trap microscopic food. On each side, a gill cover extends posteriorly, ending in a long, pointed flap. The skeleton is composed of cartilage rather than bone. The end of the verterbral column extends into the upper lobe of the heterorcercal tail, much as a shark’s does.

ADULT SIZE: 3.9 to 5.9 ft (1.2 to 1.8 m). The state angling record (52 lb, 12 oz) was caught below Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River in 1982.

DISTRIBUTION: Paddlefish occur primarily below the Fall Line in the Mobile basin and in the Tennessee River. They are absent in our coastal rivers.

HABITAT AND BIOLOGY: Paddlefish are generally found in open water, but we have collected individuals as long as 3 to 4 feet in relatively small streams, such as Isaac Creek (Monroe County), Chickasaw Creek (Mobile County), and Three Rivers Creek (Washington County). A migratory species, paddlefish congregate below dams to spawn during March and April. Spawning between one female and several males is believed to occur in open water. Floating downstream with the current, eggs drift to the bottom and stay there until hatching. Newly hatched individuals grow rapidly, reaching 12 to 14 inches by the end of their first year. Paddlefish are long-lived. Examinations of growth rings on the dentary bones indicate life spans of 20 to 30 years.

ORIGINAL DESCRIPTION: Walbaum described the paddlefish in 1792.

ETYMOLOGY:
Polyodon means many teeth, referring to the numerous gill rakers.
Spathula means spatula, referring to the paddle-shaped snout.

The copyrighted information above is from Fishes of Alabama and the Mobile Basin.

ADDITIONAL COMMON NAMES: In the southeast, anglers also call paddlefish: spoonbill, spoonbill cat, spadefish, shovelfish, shovelbilled cat, and duck-billed cat according to Cloutman and Olmstead in Fisheries (Vol. 8, No. 2).  Some would also spell it paddle fish.

Additional Information:

Note: In Alabama, it is illegal to stock or move any fish, mussel, snail or crayfish to any public water without a permit.

The US Geological Survey has an interesting page on paddlefish, including frequently answered questions.


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  • Due to a sharp decline in paddlefish numbers during the 1980's, Alabama prohibited the harvest of paddlefish in all public waters for many years. As a result of that protection, paddlefish populations have recovered in several rivers of the state. A recent study of the paddlefish population of the Alabama River determined that the numbers of paddlefish have reached a level where a controlled commercial harvest is sustainable. The Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries has announced the establishment of the second provisional commercial paddlefish season in spring 2014. This commercial paddlefish harvest will be highly regulated and limited to defined reaches of Alabama River for a limited period of time. The participation of commerical anglers will be restricted in number. Data will be collected from all harvested paddlefish in order for the Division to further monitor the population and to better develop a long term management plan for this unique and primitive fish.
  • The eggs of paddlefish make excellent caviar.
  • Paddlefish are an important component of many commercial fisheries in states that allow harvest of this species.
  • Paddlefish need gravel and consistent water flow to successfully spawn.
  • Paddlefish have been recorded moving over 100-miles in the Alabama River System and have moved upstream over Claiborne Lock and Dam during high water events.
  • Bighead carp, a non-native species, are present in Alabama and can compete for food with juvenile paddlefish.
  • Paddlefish are easily recognized by their long, paddle-shaped snout and their lack of plates or scales.
  • Paddlefish are often called spoon-billed catfish by anglers because their skin resembles that of a catfish.
  • Paddlefish eat microscopic plants and animals (plankton).
  • The nearest relative of the paddlefish lives in China.
  • The skeleton of a paddlefish is cartilage rather than bone.

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