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Conecuh River Article

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Gulf Sturgeon on the Conecuh River

Joe Zolczynski
former Fisheries Supervisor
Daphne, Alabama

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologist Frank Paruka and I sat quietly that June morning on the Conecuh River sandbar intently watching the net as it drifted through the pool. Barely visible quivers appeared on two floats; then, suddenly, three floats disappeared from the surface. As soon as I began to lift the net, the power of the huge fish, still not visible from the surface, was apparent. Within seconds, we were both straining to lift the huge Gulf sturgeon into our workboat.

AWFF biologist Joe Zolczynski releases a Gulf sturgeon.

Our adventure had begun earlier that same June when Conservation Enforcement Sergeant Frank Reid reported that several citizens had seen sturgeon jumping in the Conecuh River near Brewton, Alabama. I suspected that these fish were Gulf sturgeon, Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi, a subspecies of the Atlantic sturgeon, Acipenser oxyrinchus, which are native along the Gulf Coast from Tampa Bay to the Mississippi River. Gulf sturgeon are an anadromous fish, meaning they live in saltwater and enter rivers to spawn. In Alabama, Gulf sturgeon enter our coastal rivers as early as February, spawn in the spring, then remain in deep pools until they return to saltwater in the fall.

Land use changes, water quality problems, dam construction, development and other activities all have adverse effects on Gulf sturgeon populations. Consequently, the number of Gulf sturgeon present has decreased across their home range. To protect the remaining fish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed Gulf sturgeon as a "threatened" species in 1991.

Realizing the importance of the citizen’s report, Chief of Fisheries Stan Cook was immediately notified. Sergeant Reid and I traveled to the remote area where the sturgeon were sighted. During the remaining two hours of daylight, we saw seven Gulf sturgeon jump completely clear of the water and land with huge splashes. The fish appeared to be very large--we estimated some weighed more than a hundred pounds.

We notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and within days, Frank Paruka, who works extensively with the Gulf sturgeon, and his crew conducted a one-day sample in this area of the Conecuh River. The following week, a combined crew from the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked two additional days capturing Gulf sturgeon. Each morning, biologists loaded boats with gear and traveled to the remote pool. Gill nets and drift nets were set and constantly monitored so that Gulf sturgeon could be removed immediately after capture. A total of thirty-nine Gulf sturgeon, ranging in size from 2 to 150 pounds were caught during the three-day netting period. These fish were all measured, weighed and tagged with visible streamer tags inserted just below the dorsal fin. In addition, they were tagged just under the skin with computer chip tags that can be read electronically to identify individual fish for tracking purposes.

The initial report from the public and the resulting information we gathered on Gulf sturgeon in the Conecuh River will be valuable to ongoing efforts to manage, protect and conserve this fish. Hopefully, due to these combined conservation efforts, future Alabamians will have the pleasure of seeing these large ancient fish leap from the water, land with huge splashes, and then return to the pools they inhabit.

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