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Biologists hope tagged sturgeon will lead to others

Wednesday, April 18, 2007
News staff writer

State biologists returned what could be the world's rarest fish to its native waters in the Alabama River about noon Tuesday and spent the rest of the day following the Alabama sturgeon by sonar to be sure it was safe.

"We're going to spend the rest of the week tracking the fish," said Steve Rider, one of the biologists who caught the fish April 3. "If he moves, we want to be sure we know where he is."

The Alabama sturgeon is not only Alabama's rarest species. It is also the most controversial, with a fight during the 1990s that rivaled the battle over the Northern spotted owl.

The small, orange sturgeon was not federally protected until 2000, when a private lawyer sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, proving that the Endangered Species Act applied to the fish that lives only in Alabama's rivers.

Unlike some species, the Alabama sturgeon does not swim into the Gulf or an ocean and return to a river to spawn. As a result, after the state's rivers were turned into a series of reservoirs, the fish were never able to swim far again. They could not get over the hydroelectric dams, although they sometimes could pass through navigational locks and dams.

Scientists believe that is why its numbers dropped and say it probably quit spawning then. Past studies have shown that some river fish must swim 200 to 300 miles or more before they will spawn. However, the Alabama sturgeon's numbers already had been greatly reduced by overfishing.

This month's catch of an adult male Alabama sturgeon was biologists' first since 1999. Some, particularly the river industry coalition that has opposed the sturgeon's protection, had questioned whether it was extinct.

However, scientists generally wait many years and conduct numerous searches before declaring any species lost. They continued to search every year, and during this year's low waters nabbed a 3.7-pound sturgeon near the navigational Claiborne Lock and Dam in Wilcox County.

Later they checked its sex by cutting a three-quarter-inch incision in its belly and performing an examination. At the same time, they inserted a sonar device that allows them to monitor it. The device should help them find where the sturgeon spends its time.

Biologists held this month's sturgeon in the state fishery in Marion for two weeks to allow it to heal. That also gave them time to search the area for a female sturgeon to begin a breeding program, without the risk of traumatizing the male fish by collecting it over and over.

At the height of the search last week, a flotilla of seven boats from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources floated the Alabama River around Claiborne searching for the elusive female that would allow them to begin a captive breeding program.

Instead, they had to release the lone male sturgeon Tuesday.

They put a submersible auto receiver in the water with the fish so that when he swims nearby scientists will know where he is. They also have portable devices to place in the water to find the fish.

"Hopefully, he'll tell us where there are more sturgeon," Rider said.

E-mail: kbouma@bhamnews.com

© 2007 The Birmingham News. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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