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Giants of the Missouri River
Midwest Region, January 21, 2009
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I have always been fascinated by big fish.  There is just something awe inspiring and humbling about a fish bigger than a man, and I know that I am not alone in this fascination.  From Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and the movie Jaws, to fisherman at the local bait shop, our culture loves big fish stories.  That is why I consider myself fortunate to work with one of North America’s largest freshwater fish - the lake sturgeon. 

 

Lake sturgeon have the potential of reaching 8-feet in length and can weigh up to 300 pounds; although, the lake sturgeon we currently find in Missouri are considerably smaller.  In fact, lake sturgeon are fairly rare in the waters of Missouri and the species is classified as State Endangered.  The culprits behind the decline of lake sturgeon in Missouri are the usual suspects, habitat loss and over fishing. 

 

Given the scarcity of these freshwater giants in the Missouri River, every lake sturgeon Columbia NFWCO captures provides us with a unique opportunity to learn more about their habits and population trends.  In past years, we only collected a handful of specimens which made inferring anything about the population difficult, if not impossible.  However, since we began using trotlines as a sampling method, the numbers of lake sturgeon caught has skyrocketed.  Already in fiscal year 2009 we have collected data on 69 lake sturgeon.  Increased sample sizes in turn increases scientists’ ability to make meaningful conclusions regarding lake sturgeon populations.  One notable observation we have made so far is that these fish tend to congregate in rather small, discrete habitats.  To illustrate this point, approximately half the lake sturgeon captured this year have been caught at the mouth of the Osage River, despite a relatively small amount of effort.  This area may represent a critical habitat type.

 

Although we have been collecting many lake sturgeon of late, a vast majority of these are stocked fish.  Since 1984, Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) has stocked over 200,000 lake sturgeon into the Missouri portions of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.   

Without these stockings, lake sturgeon would be nearly nonexistent in the state of Missouri.  Since it takes approximately 20 years for lake sturgeon to mature, the first MDC stocked lake sturgeon are just now beginning to reach sexual maturity.  We are hopeful that these fish will reproduce successfully, and the wild population of lake sturgeon will begin to rebound. 

 

In keeping with Columbia NFWCO’s effort to work with the states, we have assisted MDC with their lake sturgeon broodstock collection efforts.  Last year Columbia NFWCO sent two large lake sturgeon to the hatchery to potentially be used in MDC’s captive breeding program.  Already this year, we have sent one lake sturgeon to the hatchery and look forward to sending several more.

 

Lake sturgeon have been swimming the Earth’s waters for millions of years.  Hopefully through wise conservation efforts, we will be able to tell stories about huge lake sturgeon for many generations to come.

                                                      Colby Wrasse

Contact Info: Colby Wrasse, 573-234-2132 x30, colby_wrasse@fws.gov



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