Edenton National Fish Hatchery manager Stephen Jackson watches lake sturgeon flow into the French Broad River
Absent for more than half a century, lake sturgeon returned to North Carolina waters in October as seven-thousand fish were released into the French Broad river at Hot Springs.
Lake Sturgeon are native to central North America, found in the Mississippi, Great Lakes, and Hudson Bay basins - a historical range sweeping from the deep south to well into Canada. Despite the wide distribution, during the 20th century lake sturgeon declined across their range as a result of overfishing, habitat loss, dams, and pollution. The last suspected record of the fish in North Carolina was from Hot Springs in 1946. Though not on the federal endangered species list, they are considered threatened or endangered in 19 of the 20 states in its range.
Efforts to bring the lake sturgeon back to the Southern Appalachians began in 1992, when 3,500 were stocked into the upper Clinch River. The restoration effort ramped up in 2000, when biologists began annual stocking of rivers in east Tennessee. Hand-in-hand with the stocking, biologists are tracking lake sturgeon movements in the Tennessee River basin, to gain a deeper understanding of how where the fish travel and what river habitats they prefer.
The fish stocked at Hot Springs are tagged with an identifying mark by removal of two of the bony plates. This does not harm the fish and it allows biologists to know the fish’s origin when it is caught or sampled. When re-caught during sampling at a larger size, some sturgeon receive radio transmitters, emitting a signal biologists can pick up from a boat or shore and use to track the fish’s movement. Anglers who catch a lake sturgeon are asked to report their catch to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission at 828/550-0064.
The sturgeon family of fish has been around for 136 million years, pre-dating Tyrannosaurus rex. This prehistoric pedigree is evident in their distinctive bodies, which are lined with bony plates instead of the fish scales we typically think of. They’re bottom-dwelling fish, feeding on insect larvae, crayfish, leeches, and other stream-bottom animals.
Lake sturgeon are slow-growing, long-lived fish, with females living up to 150 years. The females don’t begin reproducing until between 14 and 33 years, and then only lay eggs every three to twelve years. Being slow to develop and reproducing so infrequently makes it a challenge for the fish to bounce back from population declines.
Photo credit: USFWS