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Living Dinosaur Survives with Hatchery's Help
by Meg Dickey-Griffith
Photo Credit: Rob Holm / USFWS
Less well-known than the popular salmon or trout, the pallid sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus albus) is one of the more reclusive, ancient, and larger native fish in North America. This unusual-looking inhabitant of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers descends from the Cretaceous period 70 million years ago, when it lived alongside dinosaurs. With its flattened shovel-shaped snout, bony plates, and long shark-like tail, the pallid sturgeon still resembles its ancient relatives and is referred to as a living dinosaur.
Pallid sturgeon evolved in the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers at a time when rivers flowed freely and flood plains, backwaters, sandbars, and side-channels defined a natural, large-river ecosystem. Unfortunately, drastic alterations throughout its habitat have endangered the survival of this ancient fish. Dams and channelization block migration paths, and have also changed water quality, flow, temperature, and spawning habitat.
Since the pallid sturgeon was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, recovery efforts have included the building of fish passages, habitat restoration, and a multi-agency conservation propagation program.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) operates the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery, located downstream of Lake Sakakawea in central North Dakota, which contributes to the recovery effort by propagating pallid sturgeon. Through this program wild adult sturgeon are captured and spawned in captivity, thereby ensuring the continued existence of a healthy population as the aging wild population in the upper basin faces extirpation. Stockings from Garrison Dam of more than 275,000 fish and 800,000 larvae have been a huge part of the recovery effort.
"The conservation propagation program has been the species' saving grace in the upper basin," says Rob Holm, the project leader at the Garrison Hatchery.
A collaborative monitoring effort with state and federal biologists is underway to evaluate population augmentation efforts and track recruitment into the wild population. According to Holm, the hatchery's success "highlights the important role of hatcheries in responding quickly to conservation crises as habitat alterations threaten native species."
Photo Credit: Rob Holm / USFWS
George Jordan, the species' recovery coordinator for the Service, is optimistic about the species' recovery. "These collaborative efforts and success of the conservation hatcheries have prevented local extirpation and bought time for the pallid sturgeon," says Jordan. "However, the underlying problem of habitat loss is beginning to be addressed."
Indicator species like the pallid sturgeon help biologists understand the complexities of ecosystems. The fish's plight is a warning that many of its fellow river inhabitants may also be in trouble. Since 1990, the pallid sturgeon has gone from near extinction to a growing population as a result of conservation stockings. Yet, the species is still vulnerable.
While pallid sturgeon can live in excess of 50 years, they do not reach sexual maturity until approximately 15 years. Even then, females only spawn once every two to three years at best. The first propagated juveniles were released to augment declining adult populations in the 1990s. These fish are just now old enough to spawn. Currently, it appears that no natural recruitment is occurring because wild larvae die before they become juveniles. The reason is unknown.
The hatcheries have given the sturgeon a fighting chance for survival, but habitat restoration is still needed to ensure its recovery.
"This issue will carry into future generations," says Jordan. If efforts continue to protect the endangered pallid sturgeon, this ancient fish may one day thrive in the wild once more.
Meg Dickey-Griffith, a volunteer in the Service's Mountain-Prairie Regional Office, can be reached at email@example.com.
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