March 26, 2008

Kentucky Looks to Re-Introduce Sturgeon

LEXINGTON, Ky. _ Peregrine falcon, wild turkey, white-tailed deer.

These three high-profile wildlife species were re-established in Kentucky after being absent for generations.

Next month, another native species will make its return when fishery biologists of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources begin releasing lake sturgeon into the Cumberland River below Cumberland Falls.

The goal is to create a self-sustaining wild population in a river where historically the fish made its last stand.

"We want to bring back a part of our natural heritage," said fishery biologist Matt Thomas, who is heading up the restoration project. "This is an indicator species that tells us a lot about the health of our streams."

Lake sturgeon population recovery is a long, slow process because it takes 15 to 20 years before adults reproduce, and adults don't spawn annually, so recruitment of young fish into the population takes time.

"It will be a 20-year restoration project," said Gerry Buynak, a fishery division administrator. "We hope to stock fish every year, and establish 20 year classes."

All the fish will be stocked in the Cumberland River, and it's expected that if the stockings establish a large population, that lake sturgeon will migrate downriver into Lake Cumberland.

Thomas said the restoration effort will cost about $60,000 a year, with hatchery production costs being a major component of the expense.

The lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) is a member of an ancient family of fishes that dates back nearly 350 million years. They can live up to 150 years.

These whiskered, toothless fish have a tapered snout, and their bodies are covered with dark green bony plates called scutes. The fish's long, slender tail somewhat resembles a shark's.

Lake sturgeon are very selective omnivorous bottom feeders that eat small snails, insect larvae and other small invertebrates. In Kentucky waters, Buynak said, "It's possible they could grow to more than 4 feet long, and weigh 100 pounds."

The current state-record lake sturgeon was caught by Barney Frazer, of Corbin, Ky. The fish was 51 inches long, weighed 36 pounds, 8 ounces, and was taken from Lake Cumberland on Oct. 3, 1954, according to The Fishes of Kentucky, by William M. Clay, published in 1975. Frazer was probably walleye fishing when he hooked the sturgeon near the mouth of the Laurel River.

"In the last two decades only five specimens have been captured (in the region)," said Steve Marple, hatchery manager of the Pfeiffer Fish Hatchery, near Frankfort, where the lake sturgeon are being raised to stocking size. "In 1977-78 two lake sturgeon were found in the Cumberland River in Tennessee."

"There is also a remnant, naturally reproducing population of lake sturgeon in the White River, in Indiana," Buynak said. "To preserve the genetic integrity of that population, we won't be stocking any lake sturgeon in the Ohio River."

In Kentucky, the lake sturgeon's status is endangered on Kentucky's Heritage List, maintained by the Kentucky Nature Preserves Commission. "Federally, the lake sturgeon is not listed. There are stable populations in the Great Lakes states, St. Lawrence River and Upper Mississippi River," said Thomas.

Based on Kentucky Division of Water reports, department fishery biologists said they believed the water quality of the Cumberland River has improved enough to support lake sturgeon. "Lake sturgeon move long distances, as much as 200 miles, and we expect them to use the Rockcastle River and Big South Fork of the Cumberland for feeding and spawning," said Thomas.

Last April fertilized eggs taken from lake sturgeons in the Upper Mississippi River in Wisconsin were flown to the Pfeiffer Fish Hatchery.

Marple said about 270 sturgeon are being reared in tanks inside the hatchery building. They will be about six to 10 inches long at stocking. In the hatchery young sturgeon are raised on a special diet of brine shrimp and blood worms.

All fish released into the Cumberland River will be marked so that their survival, age, growth, movement and habitat preferences can be monitored.

About 20 to 30 sturgeon will be kept until they grow to a size that they can be fitted with radio tags that transmit signals. "That will allow us to track their seasonal movements," said Buynak.

Kentucky's restoration project will be part of a regional effort to re-establish the species in the Southeast. "Tennessee started in 2001, and Georgia in 2003," said Thomas.

Biologists from the three state agencies started a study group. "We meet and discuss our programs, to coordinate efforts and effectively monitor the fish we stock," said Thomas.

Regulations are now in place that prohibit commercial fishermen from creeling lake sturgeon, and Buynak said sport fishing regulations will be reviewed.

Since lake sturgeon feed primarily on invertebrates, they aren't that susceptible to being caught on hook and line by anglers, but Buynak said anglers fishing on the bottom with live bait or running trotlines could catch lake sturgeon.

Daming of rivers and siltation, caused by logging and poor land use practices, are believed to be the main reasons the sturgeon disappeared from Kentucky waters.

They were also vulnerable at spawning time, when they move up onto rock shoals in shallow water. Historical accounts from the early 1800s suggest that sturgeon were overharvested. Fishermen using nets considered the sturgeon a nuisance by-catch, and sturgeon were often gigged on their spawning grounds, and eaten by subsistence anglers.

A second species of sturgeon is in much better shape in Kentucky waters. The shovelnose sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus platorynchus), once found in the Licking River and Big Sandy River, is now holding its own in the Ohio River.

In Europe and Asia, sturgeon numbers have declined dramatically in recent decades.

Beluga sturgeon (Huso huso), whose roe is the source of the world's most prized caviar, is on the brink of extinction in the Caspian Sea, Adriatic Sea, and Sea of Azov, where populations are suffering from overfishing, poaching, loss of spawning habitat and pollution.

In 2000, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other conservation groups, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Beluga sturgeon as an endangered species.

The importation of beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea was banned in 2005.


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