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PACIFIC SOUTHWEST REGION: Biologists Team Up With Original Sturgeon Derby Anglers to Reel In Data
California-Nevada Offices , February 11, 2014
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Service biologist Zac Jackson removes the liver and gonads of a white sturgeon for contaminants surveys.
Service biologist Zac Jackson removes the liver and gonads of a white sturgeon for contaminants surveys. - Photo Credit: Cindy Sandoval/USFWS
Service biologist Jared Goodell carries a white sturgeon carcass back to the angler who caught it after removing samples and cleaning out the fish.
Service biologist Jared Goodell carries a white sturgeon carcass back to the angler who caught it after removing samples and cleaning out the fish. - Photo Credit: Cindy Sandoval/USFWS
Sample collection table that holds collection jars, bags, dissection trays and surgical instruments used while gathering samples from the derby sturgeon.
Sample collection table that holds collection jars, bags, dissection trays and surgical instruments used while gathering samples from the derby sturgeon. - Photo Credit: Cindy Sandoval/USFWS

By Cindy Sandoval

In the early morning hours, just as dawn breaks over Suisun Bay and the Delta, sturgeon anglers start to gather at the Foundation Sportsman’s Club located in McAvoy Harbor for “the derby.”

For the past 30 years during Super Bowl weekend, anglers try their luck at landing one of the most primitive fish and winning one of the large cash prizes awarded. The Original Sturgeon Derby is a derby unlike any other, with a spin of a wheel deciding the target length of the winning fish. There is a state law limiting the size of fish that can be kept and for the past three years many anglers offer pieces of their white sturgeon to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) biologists in the name of science.

Near dawn on the first day in February anglers gather around a wheel fixed to the Club’s wall to find out what length of sturgeon will win the derby. The reason behind the wheel is that white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) caught in California can only be kept if the fork length measures between 40 - 60 inches. Sturgeon larger or smaller than the slot limit must be returned to the water. The slot limit for sturgeon is in place to protect the population from over fishing. Sturgeon reach sexual maturity at ten to fifteen years old and if fish smaller than 40 inches were kept these fish would not have the opportunity to spawn and pass on their genetic material to the next generation. Likewise, larger sturgeon are protected because mature female sturgeon produce many more eggs than their smaller counterparts, with some large females containing around 200,000 eggs. “Early on we thought the slot limit might hurt the derby but in reality it helped, the average fishermen now felt like they had a chance, that it wasn’t just the elite guys that fish every day and can catch eight feet sturgeon that could win,” said Foundation Sportsman’s Club member and derby weigh master Tiff Gantt.

As the clock strikes 7 a.m., the wheel is spun and this year it stopped at 58 inches. The anglers gathered at the Foundation Sportsman’s Club stride to the boat docks to make their way into Suisun Bay in search of a white sturgeon close to the target length.

As anglers leave the harbor parking lot, a small team of biologists from the Service and Cramer Fish Sciences set up a mobile sample center under a small white canopy for a third year of derby sampling. The sample center consists of two tables and a few ice chests. The first table is equipped with a long wooden cradle to hold the sturgeon during sample removal and the other table houses the collection jars, bags, dissection trays and surgical instruments used while gathering samples from the sturgeon carcasses that will be coming in over the next 30 hours of the derby.

As anglers start to come in struggling to carry their 50 to 70 pound sturgeon catch, the biologists ask if they can remove samples from the fish. The samples include blood, a piece of fin, the stomach contents and portions of the liver and gonads and most anglers are happy to help or at least happy to have their fish cleaned for them. According to Zac Jackson, Service fisheries biologist, this is a unique opportunity to collect samples that the Service would not otherwise be able to get, “we are taking lethal tissue samples like livers and gonads and we would not normally propose to remove wild fish for this but since the anglers are legally harvesting the fish anyways we can use this opportunity to work together and collect data.”

The samples are used to evaluate the health of the large prehistoric looking fish. The stomach contents will of course show what the fish has been feeding on and it can also show changes in food sources over the years as the Delta changes and some non-native prey animals move in. Liver and gonads are collected to test for any contaminants in the water. “White sturgeon are a long lived species, we think they can live 60 to 80 years, even if they only live to 40 that is a long time for contaminants to build up in their bodies,” points out Jackson.

The fin ray of a sturgeon can act much like a tree ring and show biologists the age and growth of a specific fish. The rays will also be reviewed using microchemistry to provide insight into migratory history to review where fish were reared and where they spent a majority of their time. This information can then be utilized by the Service and its partners to improve habitat used by the sturgeon during different portions of their life. By focusing restoration efforts on areas known to support juvenile white sturgeon the Service can rehabilitate vital habitat and more fish can reach breeding size.

The Service will add the 2014 white sturgeon samples to the data collected from the 2012 and 2013 derbies to compare any changes to the population over the last three years. Data collection like this would not be possible without the help of anglers and the Original Sturgeon Derby sponsors. The long life, late maturity and infrequent spawning of white sturgeon contribute to the vulnerability of the population and fish managers use the samples from derby fish to learn more about the needs of this river giant. Service staff plans to attend next year’s derby to collect samples from willing anglers and further build up the database on white sturgeon in the delta.

 

 

 

Cindy Sandoval is a public affairs specialist at the Pacific Southwest Regional Office in Sacramento, Calif.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdJdEQqshO0
Original Sturgeon Derby Footage and Interviews
Contact Info: Cynthia Sandoval, 916-978-6159, cynthia_d_sandoval@fws.gov



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