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Alabama sturgeon a male, to be freed carrying tracker

Friday, April 06, 2007
KATHERINE BOUMA
News staff writer

MARION - The only known living Alabama sturgeon is male and will be useless for a breeding program, biologists said after a tense surgery Thursday morning at the state fish hatchery.

The fish, caught Tuesday in the Alabama River in Wilcox County, is the first Alabama sturgeon biologists have netted in their searches since 1999. It is believed to be the rarest fish species in the world.

Thursday morning, scientists cut a three-quarter-inch incision in the sturgeon to determine its sex. If it had been a female in breeding season, they would have held it and inseminated it with frozen sperm saved from Alabama sturgeon caught in the 1990s.

If it had been a male ready for breeding, they would have removed sperm. Instead, they inserted a sonar device equipped with a four-year battery into the fish. Biologists plan to release it into the Alabama River in a few days, after it has fully healed.

In the 1990s, the state hoped to begin a breeding program by holding fish at the Marion Fish Hatchery. However, only five fish were caught from 1993 to 1999, all male. The last Alabama sturgeon held in captivity died in the Marion hatchery in 2002.

As a result, biologists decided almost immediately that they would release this week's fish if it were male and not hold it in hopes of catching a female.

Thursday, Nick Nichols, assistant chief of fisheries for the state, operated on the fish with the help of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist from Georgia. The fish flopped wildly on the first stitch and when Nichols removed a tissue sample.

Otherwise, it was docile. One of the field biologists who found the sturgeon, Steve Rider, poured warmed aquarium water onto the fish's gills throughout the 20-minute procedure. Nichols said he did not use an anesthetic since sturgeon do not respond well to it. He said fish have thick skin with nerves not as close to the surface as humans.

He was able to give it a preventive antibiotic and give the wound an antibiotic bath.

The Alabama sturgeon is believed to be the rarest vertebrate in all North America, surpassing even the Florida panther or California condor, said Bernie Kuhajda, the University of Alabama professor considered the world's expert on the Alabama sturgeon.

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