Georgia Wildlife Resources Division
2070 U.S. Hwy. 278, SE, Social Circle, GA 30025
Sturgeons (about 27 species world-wide) are a very 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, lake sturgeon disappeared from the Coosa River system in the 1960s.
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.
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 the lake sturgeon diet. Most food consumption studies found that food items were typically eaten in proportion to the items abundance in the environment. However, several researchers reported a preference for soft-bodied invertebrates such as mayflies.
One reason for stocking lake sturgeon is to reestablish a sport fish. 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.
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.
When European settlers first started fishing the Great Lakes the lake sturgeon had little value and were considered a nuisance because they would tangle fishermens 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 as firewood. About 1860 their value increased dramatically as the demand for their flesh, eggs, and other products increased. Over-harvest 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 sturgeons 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 over-harvest 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.
GDNR 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.
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 sturgeons 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.
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 Reservoirs.
The initial stocking of sturgeon occurred in December, 2002 when approximately 1,100 six-inch sturgeon were released in the Oostanaula River. Including this first stocking, GDNR has released over 85,000 fingerlings as of December 2008. While this seems like a large number of fish to stock, only a small proportion of these fish are expected to survive. Numerous studies are planned to continue to monitor the success of the reintroduction program. Results of this monitoring will be used to fine tune future stocking rates, time and locations to improve success. Biologists estimate it will take at least 15-20 years of stocking to reestablish the lake sturgeon to the Coosa River system. Based on reports from anglers, previously stocked sturgeon are adapting well and thriving in the river.
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.
While anglers should not deliberately target lake sturgeon when fishing, some will likely be 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.