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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

All Hail King Pallid

Region 3, December 13, 2012
A pallid sturgeon collected on the Missouri River near Jefferson City MO.
A pallid sturgeon collected on the Missouri River near Jefferson City MO. - Photo Credit: n/a
SCEP student, Jeff Finley (now Fish Biologist), weighs the first pallid sturgeon collected by Columbia FWCO March 2, 1999. The fish was collected in a gillnet on the Missouri River near Rocheport MO on the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.
SCEP student, Jeff Finley (now Fish Biologist), weighs the first pallid sturgeon collected by Columbia FWCO March 2, 1999. The fish was collected in a gillnet on the Missouri River near Rocheport MO on the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. - Photo Credit: n/a

The Columbia Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office is located in Columbia, Missouri.  Columbia is an all American town lying in the heartland of America, a stone’s throw from the longest river in the United States, home to the Mizzou Tigers, and right in the middle of the native range of the pallid sturgeon. While the Columbia FWCO is engaged in many projects, like aquatic habitat improvement, fish passage, invasive species control, fish management and almost anything aquatic; the majestic pallid sturgeon has consistently sat on the throne of focus for our office for 20 years. Able to live to 80 years old, the pallid sturgeon outlives most any other fish swimming the river, travels thousands of miles covering up to 2/3rds of the U.S., and has a blue-blood pedigree linking modern Earth with dinosaurs.


Beginning in 1992, just a few short years after the pallid was federally listed as endangered, our office was established. Since then we have been working with our partners to prevent a catastrophic crumbling of the pallid’s kingdom resulting from dam construction and habitat degradation in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. For early projects, biologists gleaned what little pallid data existed from historical sampling efforts and anecdotal information from commercial fishers.

Not until 1999 did staff from the Columbia FWCO capture a pallid sturgeon in the wild. Despite a very small staff, we continued focusing efforts to find this elusive creature and learn its ways. On average the small crew of the 1990s was lucky to capture five pallid sturgeon in a year. Today it is common to capture five in a week, and even five in a day when crews are targeting brood fish for the stocking program.

The increase in pallid sturgeon collections is due to several factors. First, the vast majority of the pallid sturgeon we capture are a result of an aggressive stocking program that has steadily stocked fish into the river system since 1994. Secondly, with two decades of efforts we have learned what habitats to sample and when to target them. Thirdly, gear developments, an increased fleet of boats and advancements in technology have vastly contributed to our efficiency. Lastly, manpower has increased.   Early on, we had one crew of three people sampling intermittently six months out of the year. In recent years we have had no less than two crews working year-round under the direction of a protocol designed specifically to target pallid sturgeon.

The primary contributing factor to advancements in pallid sturgeon research and monitoring is a direct result of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2000 Biological Opinion on the Operation of the Missouri River Main Stem Reservoir System, Operation and Maintenance of the Missouri River Bank Stabilization and Navigation Project, Operation of the Kansas River Reservoir System and the 2003 Amendment to the 2000 Biological Opinion which is referred to as “The BiOp” for short. The BiOp used the best available scientific data to direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (CORP) operation and maintenance of the Missouri River system in a manner that reduced jeopardy to the continued existence of least terns, piping plover and pallid sturgeon.

As a result of listing, the pallid sturgeon recovery plan was written and under the auspice of adaptive management, is continually updated based on scientific findings. The recovery plan recommends the population is closely monitored under a protocol derived from the Pallid Sturgeon Population Assessment and Monitoring Program administered by the CORP. This program has our crews sampling for pallid sturgeon and the fish community associated with pallid sturgeon year round. Beginning in the fall when waters cool, crews begin looking for pallids with gillnets and trot lines. As winter river conditions allow we collect fish under the “sturgeon season” until spring. As the ice melts and days get a little longer, pallids begin their spawning migrations and we then shift our focus to collecting brood fish for the stocking program.

Wild pallids in reproductive condition (at least 7 to 15 years old and not previously used for the stocking program) are extremely rare because existing individuals spawn only every 2 to 5 years. A collective effort throughout the Missouri River Basin typically yields only a couple of pallids that can be selected for spawning in each designated management unit. Although they are all pallid sturgeon, the Missouri and Mississippi river systems are so vast that scientists have detected slight genetic differences in populations across their native range which extends from the Yellowstone River in Montana to the Gulf of Mexico.

The hatchery and stocking programs take great care to maintain this natural genetic diversity with stocked fish and ensure that fish are placed into the area of the river they best genetically fit. Reproductively fit pallids that cannot be used for brood fish (i.e. a progeny of the stocking program) have been outfitted with radio transmitters and tracked by the U.S. Geological Survey. Use of DIDSON, and underwater sonar,  and cutting edge fish tracking telemetry technology have led to tremendous advancements in understanding of the habitats used by, and behavior of, spawning pallids. Summer signals a shift in sampling efforts to “fish community season” which entails sampling the fish typically associated with pallids (either forage or shared habitats) and evaluating the ecology and survival of recently hatched pallid sturgeon. Work during the fish community season has led to improvements in our understanding of sturgeon nocturnal behavior. For this crews use benthic trawls, both deep water stern trawls and shallow water push trawls, miniature fyke nets and drifted trammel nets as river conditions allow.

Whether slugging through knee deep silt in the sultry summers on the Big Muddy or chipping ice from the gunnels in the winter, our mantra is “Conserving big river ecosystems in America’s heartland” and in Columbia, the pallid sturgeon is King.

Contact Info: Jeff Finley, 573 234-2132 x .171, jeff_finley@fws.gov