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Little Fish, Big Surprise
Midwest Region, June 1, 2009
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After seven years of sampling fish on the big rivers of the Midwest, I thought I had seen just about all these rivers had to offer.  Catching endangered pallid sturgeon, prehistoric lake sturgeon, and monstrous catfish, had become just another day at the office.  But when you least expect it these murky waters and their mysterious fish will surprise you. 

 

The big surprise this year has been the impressive number of young-of-year paddlefish turning up in our trawl nets on the Missouri River.  In years past we’ve collected small paddlefish, but never in these numbers.  We don’t have an exact count at this time, but it is safe to say that we have collected several hundred young-of-year paddlefish this spring.  On some occasions we had fifty, or more, small “spoonbills” in a single trawl sample.  Everywhere we dropped a net this spring we seemed to be catching little paddlefish. 

 

So the obvious question is “Why?”  What seemingly made this spring such a successful year for paddlefish spawning?  Did this spring’s high water trigger a mass spawning event?  Did high water in 2007 and 2008 lead to increased paddlefish food (plankton) in the river, which in turn improved paddlefish condition and fecundity?  Have stockings and conservation efforts increased paddlefish numbers to the point where they have reached a critical mass needed for an outstanding spawn?  Or is it a combination of these factors, or maybe something else entirely?  This is all just speculation, but whatever the reason it appears that it was a banner year for paddlefish spawning.    

 

Paddlefish are not rare in Missouri, but they are ranked as vulnerable in the state, and a great amount of effort has been spent to ensure the continued existence of the species.  Paddlefish populations in Missouri are robust enough to support a recreational snagging season, which is incredibly popular with anglers. 

 

While paddlefish in Missouri seem to be doing pretty well, half a world away the Chinese paddlefish is struggling for survival.  In fact some scientists fear this close relative to the American paddlefish may already be extinct, as no adult Chinese paddlefish have been reported since 2003 and no juveniles have been seen since 1995.  It is believed that a combination of overfishing and dam construction has led to the demise of this fish.  Hopefully enough Chinese paddlefish remain to make recovery of the species possible.  Perhaps what we have learned about American paddlefish populations, propagation, and conservation can be used as a model of recovery for the Chinese paddlefish.  In light of the plight of the Chinese paddlefish and other ancient fishes around the world, we should be thankful that we have a relatively stable population of prehistoric paddlefish here in Missouri for everyone to enjoy. 

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



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