Alabama sturgeon caught in Wilcox, raises hopes for possible breeding

Thursday, April 05, 2007
KATHERINE BOUMA
News staff writer

State biologists have found an Alabama sturgeon in the Alabama River, eight years after researchers last caught the extraordinarily rare fish in the wild.

Funding to continue searching for the sturgeon was scheduled to expire at the end of this year, after more than a decade of attempts to catch the fish and breed it in captivity. But state biologists caught the fish Tuesday on the Alabama River near Claiborne Lock and Dam in Wilcox County.

Biologists from around the Southeast mobilized Wednesday to study and plan the future of the fish.

"It is exciting," said Stan Cook, fisheries chief for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. "We haven't caught one since 1999. There was a commercial angler who caught one on the Cahaba in 2003 and released it."

This week's catch took place at what has been the best hunting ground for the rare fish, near Camden. State and federal biologists working together began in 1993 to catch sturgeon for a captive breeding program at Marion Fish Hatchery. But they were not able to catch them quickly enough to breed them, and all were either released or died in captivity.

The fish found Tuesday will have minor surgery today to determine its sex. If it is female, the state will hold it and inseminate it with sturgeon sperm frozen during the last breeding effort.

If it is male, biologists will collect more sperm to freeze and return it to the river with a small sonar device attached.

Now that scientists know how difficult it could be to catch more fish, they will not keep this one for long unless they have a real chance at helping it to reproduce, Cook said.

"It's always a difficult call whether to keep them or release them," he said.

Scientists believe the fish is mature, since it is full-grown and almost four pounds. But a female would be the only hope of beginning a captive program to produce more of one of the nation's rarest fish.

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