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Lake Sturgeon Reintroduction to the Coosa River Basin

Lake Sturgeon Drawing

 

What is a Lake Sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens)?

Generally speaking, sturgeon are an ancient group of fish that date back to the age of the dinosaurs. There are 27 living species found worldwide. They are cartilaginous fish (nearly boneless) with sucker-like mouths, shark-like tails, sensitive barbels (whiskers) under the snout, and bony scutes (plates) along the sides and top of their bodies. They are opportunistic feeders, meaning they feed on almost anything they can find. Their diet consists primarily of invertebrates (insect larvae, crayfish, worms, and mollusks). Maximum size, weight, and lifespan vary from species to species.

Lake sturgeon are long-lived and can obtain weights over 100 pounds. Specimens up to 150 years in age and weighing more than 200 pounds have been documented. However, in their remaining range, most males live about 55 years and females about 80 years. Despite their long lives, lake sturgeon have very low reproductive potential. Most females spawn for the first time between 14–23 years of age, and then only every 7–9 years afterwards. Most sturgeon travel up freshwater rivers briefly to spawn, then return to the saltwater of the lower river and river estuaries for the remainder of the year. However, the lake sturgeon is one of only a few species that spends its entire life in freshwater.

Lake sturgeon are primarily found in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River drainages, but they are also native to the Coosa River basin in northwest Georgia. Originally considered a nuisance because they would entangle nets of fishermen, sturgeon had little value and were wastefully slaughtered in much the same way as the American Buffalo. Around 1860, their value increased dramatically as the demand for their flesh, eggs (used for caviar), and other products increased. Over-harvest quickly occurred, and their numbers dropped dramatically. In addition to over-harvest, dams that block spawning movements and water pollution have negatively impacted the species. Considered a threatened species throughout its range, its current population is now estimated to be less than 1% of its original abundance. The original native population of lake sturgeon in the Coosa River became extirpated (locally extinct) around 1960. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) initiated a long-term effort in 2002 to restore lake sturgeon to the Coosa River system in Northwest Georgia.


The Process of Reintroducing Lake Sturgeon to the Coosa River Basin

Why DNR is Reintroducing Lake Sturgeon to the Coosa River

Baby sturgeon in net

The lake sturgeon reintroduction program has two primary goals. One reason for stocking lake sturgeon is to re-establish a native sport fish to Georgia waters. Simply put, lake sturgeon grow large and are fun for anglers to catch. Anglers reported good harvests of lake sturgeon in Georgia waters as recently as the 1950s before they suddenly disappeared. Considering the longevity of lake sturgeon and the heavy harvests reported by some anglers, over-harvest was likely a factor in the disappearance of the Coosa River population. WRD biologists believe the species can once again be part of the river ecosystem and support a modest fishery if monitored and managed carefully.

The second reason for restoring the species addresses the conservation of Georgia's rare species. In a recent survey completed by WRD, 72 percent of Georgians supported the allocation of financial and personnel resources for managing and conserving imperiled species. This is an excellent example of how WRD is working to conserve and protect Georgia's native species. By reintroducing lake sturgeon, Georgians are contributing to the conservation of a unique species.

The reintroduction of lake sturgeon to the Coosa River serves as a major milestone in Georgia's conservation efforts. The reintroduction of a native species to an area is a difficult task that takes the cooperation of state and federal agencies and citizens working together for a common good. It will take many years before lake sturgeon are present in the Coosa in significant numbers. Research indicates it will take more than two decades of annual stockings before the species might reach adequate numbers to reproduce on their own. It will take an estimated 25–30 years before the fish might be mature enough to support any controlled harvest.

Scientists believe pollution, over-fishing and other factors have contributed to the decline of the species nationwide. Thanks to the efforts of concerned citizens and a variety of government agencies, much of the pollution in the Coosa system has been eliminated and the Coosa River can once again support lake sturgeon.

Reintroduction Approach

At the start of the sturgeon reintroduction program, WRD biologists concentrated on three main areas of research in preparation for the reintroduction. First, they wanted to determine if any lake sturgeon still existed in the Coosa River system. Second, they needed to refine hatching and rearing techniques to produce the fingerlings necessary to restock the river. Third, they wanted to know if lake sturgeon would impact other species in the river system.Sturgeon eggs

Several methods were used to determine if any lake sturgeon still existed in the river. WRD consulted with staff of other agencies and the University of Georgia to determine if they had any data indicating the presence of lake sturgeon in Georgia. WRD biologists also reviewed 40+ years of their own fish sampling data to determine if any sturgeon had been collected and to determine how much sampling had been conducted that potentially could have collected sturgeon. Some additional sampling effort was directed specifically toward catching sturgeon in their last known locations using techniques provided by older anglers who caught them many years ago. Finally, DNR actively sought information from the general public using posters and newspaper articles that requested anyone with information on recent sturgeon sightings to contact DNR. The result of these efforts indicated that no lake sturgeon had been verified from the river since 1959 and it was very unlikely that any of the original lake sturgeon existed in the river.

The potential for lake sturgeon to impact other species is extremely small for several reasons. Lake sturgeon are opportunistic feeders that feed primarily on soft-bodied invertebrates, which live on the stream bottom. They feed almost entirely by feel using the barbels located near their mouth, making them inefficient predators on other fish. Because individual females spawn infrequently, their reproductive potential is very low and overpopulation of sturgeon, which could cause competition with other fish species, is unlikely. In fact, throughout its range, inadequate reproduction is a problem, whereas over abundant populations have not been documented. Not only is the potential for over production very low, but the potential for reducing a population, if necessary, is very high. This is because sturgeon are valued not only for their meat but also for their eggs, which are used to make caviar. Thus, large numbers of fish can easily be reduced using harvest regulations.

Beginning in April 2002, Wisconsin DNR began shipping lake sturgeon eggs annually to Georgia. The eggs hatch out in about seven days. From March through October, the sturgeon are fed a variety of natural and commercial foods. Once the sturgeon reach 4–7 inches, they are released into the Coosa River system at several locations. Sturgeon are raised primarily at WRD’s Summerville Fish Hatchery and the Go Fish Education Center, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Warm Springs Hatchery. More than 300,000 fingerling lake sturgeon have been released into the Coosa River basin as a result of these collaborative production efforts.

Current Status of Lake Sturgeon in Georgia

Researchers from the University of Georgia monitored the initial success of the lake sturgeon reintroduction using radio telemetry and population assessment techniques from 2003 to 2007. This project was funded by Federal Sportfish Restoration Funds granted to WRD. Researchers recaptured 20 stocked fish and implanted them with miniature radio transmitters. After allowing the fish to heal for two weeks the sturgeon were released back into the river near where they were captured. Since each transmitter gave off a unique radio signal, individual fish movement and behavior could be monitored. Study results indicated that lake sturgeon utilize the Coosa River from Rome downstream into Lake Weiss. The sturgeon move seasonally, ranging throughout the lake and river in the winter and moving upstream in mid to late summer.

Another part of the UGA project used various types of sampling gear to determine the survival, size distribution, and growth of the lake sturgeon during the first few years of the program. Over 350 lake sturgeon from the 2002 through 2004 releases were captured, measured, weighed, and released. Lake sturgeon survival was higher than expected. Initial growth of the lake sturgeon was good with fish from 11 to 36 inches long being caught and released.

WRD staff continue to monitor the lake sturgeon population using nets, baited trotlines, and electrofishing. We also record reported angler catches of lake sturgeon. WRD sampling results and angler reports show that these fish have continued to grow and mature. Some of the oldest and largest fish are now in the 20-pound range and are around four feet in length. We have also seen increasing numbers of mature male sturgeon attempting to spawn in the Coosa’s main tributaries, though we have yet to confirm any mature females laden with eggs. Therefore, we have not yet documented any successful natural spawning. Based on angler reports, some fish have moved further downstream in the Coosa system including Neely Henry and Logan Martin reservoirs in Alabama, reoccupying their full native range in the Coosa Basin.


What To Do if you Catch a Lake SturgeonBiologist holding a lake sturgeon

LAKE STURGEON CANNOT BE HARVESTED. IF YOU CATCH A STURGEON IT SHOULD BE HANDLED GENTLY AND RELEASED AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

  • Sturgeon should not be kept on a stringer, kept in a live well, or otherwise stressed in a manner that could cause it harm. 
  • If a sturgeon is hooked deeply, cut the line as close as you can to the hook and release the sturgeon with the hook.

As part of the sturgeon reintroduction effort in the Coosa River system, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources would like to hear about any sturgeon sightings. If you catch or otherwise see a lake sturgeon, please report the information to the office listed below. Note the date and location of your sighting, photograph the fish if possible, and provide your name and telephone number so biologists can contact you about your sighting.

Wildlife Resources Division: Fisheries Management Section
2592 Floyd Springs Road
Armuchee, GA 30105
706-295-6102


Frequently Asked Questions About Lake Sturgeon

What are lake sturgeon?

Sturgeons (about 27 species worldwide) are a unique, awe-inspiring group of fish that look like they belong more with dinosaurs than with our current day freshwater fish. In fact, they did coexist with dinosaurs and have changed little since that time. They are a cartilaginous (nearly boneless) fish with a shark-like tail, sucker-like mouth, sensitive barbels under its snout, and rows of bony scutes (plates) on the side and top of its body. The lake sturgeon is a species that is found primarily in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River drainage area but was also found in the Coosa River basin in northwestern Georgia and northeastern Alabama. Unfortunately, the original population of lake sturgeon disappeared from the Coosa River system in the 1960s.

How big and how old do lake sturgeon get?Sturgeon on table

One lake sturgeon on record lived to be 154 years of age and another tipped the scales at 310 pounds. Both these records were from northern states in the early 20th century and few, if any, such fish exist today. Unfortunately, little was recorded about the Coosa River population of lake sturgeon but they probably did not live as long or get as large as northern fish due to the warmer waters. Biologists have found a few old pictures of Coosa drainage fish in which the fish appear to weigh up to about 40 pounds. The largest sturgeon now residing in the Coosa are around 20 pounds but are still growing.

What do lake sturgeon eat?

Sturgeons are primarily bottom feeders that find their food by smell and touch. Food consumption studies indicate lake sturgeon feed on almost anything they can find, which includes invertebrates, insect larvae, crayfish, worms, and mollusks. While these studies found that sturgeon eat some fish and fish eggs, they were not a large component of their diet. Most food consumption studies found that food items were typically eaten in proportion to abundance in the environment. However, several researchers reported a preference for soft-bodied invertebrates such as mayflies.

Why does the Georgia Department of Natural Resources want to stock lake sturgeon?

One reason for stocking lake sturgeon is to reestablish a sport fish. Simply put, lake sturgeon grow large and are fun for anglers to catch. Fishermen reported good harvests of lake sturgeon into the early 1960s but the fish suddenly disappeared. Considering the longevity of lake sturgeon and the heavy harvests reported by some fishermen, over-harvest was likely a factor in the disappearance of the Coosa River fish. Biologists believe the species can once again be part of the river ecosystem and provide some harvest if monitored and managed carefully. Lake sturgeon are prized by sportsmen primarily for their meat and eggs (caviar).

Another reason to restore the species is that most people are interested in the preservation of rare species. In one recent survey, 72% of Georgians favored more money and time be devoted to the management of imperiled species. Lake sturgeon are certainly one of the more interesting of these species due to their size, unique appearance, and longevity. By reintroducing lake sturgeon, Georgians are contributing to the preservation of a fascinating species.

Why are lake sturgeon populations in such bad shape?

When European settlers first started fishing the Great Lakes the lake sturgeon had little value and were considered a nuisance because they would tangle fishermen's nets. They were wastefully slaughtered in much the same way as the American buffalo. So invaluable were the fish that they were tossed on the bank to rot, fed to hogs, and even dried and burned like firewood. About 1860 their value increased dramatically as the demand for their flesh, eggs, and other products increased. Overharvest quickly occurred and the population dropped to a fraction of its original abundance. In Lake Erie, for example, harvest was over 5 million pounds in 1895 but by 1905 the total harvest was only 100,000 pounds. Today, harvest of lake sturgeon for commercial purposes has stopped and only a few sport fisheries remain.

Efforts to restore the species are hampered by the lake sturgeon’s low reproductive capabilities. Females from the Great Lakes area do not reproduce until they are 14–25 years of age and then only reproduce every four to nine years. Although lake sturgeon are expected to mature faster in the warmer waters of the Coosa River system, their reproductive capabilities will still be far below other species.

While overharvest is likely the main cause of the decline, dams that block spawning movements and water pollution have also been blamed. Today, like most sturgeons in the world, lake sturgeon populations are weak and the species continued existence is a concern for fishery managers. Current population numbers are estimated to be less than 1% of their original abundance. Despite the drastic decline in sturgeon numbers, the demand for sturgeon eggs and flesh remains high today. Because of its value, poaching is a concern that further threatens the species.

Are the original Coosa system lake sturgeon really gone?

WRD biologists reviewed 40 years of general fish sampling data from the area, consulted with citizens and staff of other agencies, and sampled specifically for sturgeon using a variety of methods. Although there is one claim that two fish were found in an area pond in 1980 (which has since been drained), biologists found no substantiated evidence that the fish remained in the Coosa system after the middle 1960s.

How will lake sturgeon affect other species, particularly crappie in Lake Weiss?

Although sturgeon will eat fish if they can, their blind, ambling feeding behavior limits their ability to prey on fish, especially mobile species such as crappie. Sturgeon are also known to eat fish eggs (as do many other fish species) which potentially could reduce crappie reproduction. On the other hand, sturgeon can also eat the eggs of crappie competitors and predators, thus reducing competition and reducing species that prey on crappie. So, will sturgeon help or hurt other fish populations? The answer is neither. Sturgeon numbers will be too low to significantly impact other fish populations either positively or negatively. Nowhere in its range is overpopulation of lake sturgeon a problem. In fact, most states do not have enough lake sturgeon to keep them off their rare and endangered species lists. The lake sturgeon’s low reproduction rate makes the chance of them overpopulating virtually impossible. Even if they did reproduce to greater numbers than desired, it would be easy to reduce the population through harvest regulations since demand for the species is high. Remember also that lake sturgeon is a native species, not an exotic species, which has never been tested in the system before. Lake Weiss likely harbored lake sturgeon after it was built. The dam was completed in 1961, which is a few years before the lake sturgeon disappeared from the Coosa River system. Regarding rare species, keep in mind that sturgeons are opportunistic feeders, which, generally feed on the foods that are most abundant. Thus, if a species is rare, sturgeon will rarely encounter it.

Where will you stock the sturgeon?

Sturgeon will be stocked at numerous sites in the Etowah (up-and downstream of Lake Allatoona), Coosawattee, and Oostanaula Rivers because these rivers were the last reported locations to contain lake sturgeon. There are no current plans to stock above Carters Lake.

How many sturgeon will GADNR stock and how big will they be?

The first stocking of sturgeon occurred in December, 2002 when approximately 1,100 six-inch sturgeon were released in the Oostanaula River. Including this first stocking, WRD and our partners have released over 300,000 fingerlings into northwest Georgia rivers. While this seems like a large number of fish to stock, only a small proportion of these fish survive. Biological staff continue to monitor the success of the reintroduction program. Results of this monitoring are used to fine tune stocking rates, times, and locations to improve success. Biologists estimate it will take at least 20–25 years of stocking to reestablish the lake sturgeon to the Coosa River system.

When will we be able to harvest lake sturgeon again?

Before harvest can begin, biologists must be sure the lake sturgeon are surviving to reproductive age and reproducing naturally. Biologists will then need to determine the level of recruitment to adult size and carefully determine how much harvest can be allowed. Given the slow maturity of lake sturgeon and their longevity, it may take several decades before harvest will be permitted.

Since it is illegal to harvest lake sturgeon, what do I do if I catch one?

While anglers should not deliberately target lake sturgeon when fishing, some are caught accidentally. These fish should be released unharmed as soon as possible after capture. If a fish is hooked deep, just cut the line as close to the hook as possible and release the fish with the hook. The fish has a better chance of surviving with the hook than it would if it was injured while removing the hook.