The once eliminated, prehistoric-looking lake sturgeon is making a return to Georgia’s waters. Decades have passed since these fish, described by some as “shark-like” and “weird,” inhabited their native waters in the Coosa River Basin and Etowah River. Thanks to recent stocking efforts, the species now has a chance to reestablish a population and one day thrive again in these Georgia rivers.
This fall, Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division biologists from Calhoun are stocking 5,000 sturgeon in the Etowah River above Lake Allatoona for the first time. Lake sturgeon stocking efforts began in 2002 in the river system below Allatoona, and the small population has since spread throughout most of the native Coosa River Basin habitat.
“We are hoping eventually to hear reports of lake sturgeon sightings as our stocking efforts begin in the Etowah River,” explains Wayne Probst, Wildlife Resources Division regional fisheries supervisor for northwest Georgia. “We also hope for an increase in sightings throughout the Coosa River Basin as annual stocking efforts continue. Restoring the presence of these prehistoric fish is an important ongoing project for the division.”
Lake sturgeon are long and slender fish with five rows of bony-like plates known as scutes. They are cartilaginous and have dorsal fins similar to a shark, and their toothless tubular mouths are topped with four wiry whiskers. They can live up to 150 years and can weigh 100 or more pounds. In Georgia, they are more likely to reach 40 or 50 pounds.
The 4-6 inch fish biologists will use for stocking came from fertilized eggs received from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The eggs were hatched and raised at Summerville Fish Hatchery in Summerville, Ga. – the only division-operated hatchery in the state currently producing lake sturgeon.
Another hatchery assisting in the restoration effort is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Warm Springs Regional Fisheries Center in Warm Springs, Ga. Hatchery staff assist the division by producing fingerling-size lake sturgeon and helping transport the eggs received from the Wisconsin DNR.
Monitoring studies indicate that stocking efforts in the river system below Allatoona are succeeding. However, because lake sturgeon are long-lived and have a low reproductive capacity, restoration efforts for the species can take decades, and the division anticipates conducting annual sturgeon stocking efforts for the next 15-25 years.
“It is our hope that in time, Georgia’s river systems once again will have a thriving, self-sufficient population of lake sturgeon,” explains Gary Beisser, Wildlife Resources Division biologist. “Successfully re-establishing the species for harvest is the ultimate goal, and anglers can help with this effort by immediately releasing any caught sturgeon and by reporting sightings or catches to a local Wildlife Resources Division Fisheries office.”
For now and during the next decade or two as the species recovers, it is illegal to harvest lake sturgeon. If a sturgeon is accidentally hooked, anglers are advised to immediately release the fish and report the catch details to the division.
The demise of lake sturgeon populations is not limited to Georgia alone. In fact, the species is listed as either threatened or endangered by 19 of the 20 states within its original national range. The construction of dams, pollution and overfishing are blamed for the loss in North America. Division biologists specifically suspect pollution and overfishing as main contributors to Georgia’s loss.
The species truly is an ancient family of fishes. Sturgeon have been recognized since the Upper Cretaceous period (136 million years ago), a time when dinosaurs were at the height of their development. Worldwide there are 29 species or subspecies of sturgeon – nine species exist in North America.
For more information on lake sturgeon or to locate the nearest Wildlife Resources Division Fisheries office, visit www.gofishgeorgia.com or call (770) 918-6406.
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