Newsroom Midwest Region
News Release
May 19, 2010
Ashley Spratt

Contact:  Georgia Parham
812-334-4261 x 1203


Patrolling to Protect the Pallid Sturgeon

Five years ago, the U.S. Senate designated the third Friday in May as Endangered Species Day.  This year, Endangered Species Day is May 21, an opportunity to raise awareness about imperiled plants, animals, and habitats, and to demonstrate ways that others can help conserve these resources.  The following is an example of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working with others to recover endangered plants, animals and habitats.
Caviar, that highly prized food of the rich and famous, comes from fish species – notably sturgeon and paddlefish -- that few would find appealing. Although Russia once dominated the global caviar industry, open and unregulated fishing in the Caspian and Black seas after the fall of the Soviet Union nearly wiped out wild sturgeon populations in just a few years.  While the supply of sturgeon, paddlefish and salmon caviar has diminished, the demand for their valuable roe has soared. Commercial fishermen began to look to North American waters to satisfy the world’s caviar consumers - grim news for the already struggling populations of endangered pallid sturgeon in the Mississippi, Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.

The pallid sturgeon, cousin to the more common shovelnose sturgeon, is a remnant of the Cretaceous period and one of the largest fish found in North America’s large-river systems. Pallid sturgeon can grow to more than 6 feet in length and weigh up to 80 pounds. When the pallid sturgeon was listed as federally endangered in 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s  Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in Columbia, Missouri, amplified efforts to monitor and restore the species to its native habitat. At the same time, agents from the Service’s Law Enforcement division ramped up efforts to patrol and prosecute illegal harvest of pallid sturgeon by commercial fishermen.

Shovelnose and pallid sturgeon are often mistaken for one another due to their similarity of appearance.  Commercial fishermen fishing for shovelnose can and do inadvertently capture endangered pallid sturgeon – a class A misdemeanor under the Endangered Species Act. If the flesh or roe are sold and the value exceeds $350, the case could be prosecuted under the federal Lacey Act as a felony.

 “It is very difficult to distinguish the two species, even for a biologist who works with and handles these fish on a regular basis,” said Dr. Tracy Hill, project leader at the Columbia FWCO in central Missouri.  “As you move down the river system from north to south, especially in the lower Missouri all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish these fish from one another.”

Federal and state law enforcement officers, along with Service and state natural resource biologists from Columbia, began working together to improve monitoring and regulations-enforcement of commercial fishing, sharing information and resources.  Biologists from Columbia shared their expertise on fish identification with law enforcement agents and taught them how to use side-scan sonar to look for commercial fishing nets.

“We cover a large geographic area on our commercial fishing patrols, and it was difficult to know where and when the fishermen would be. There were so many variables making it difficult to monitor for suspicious activity,” said Dan Burleson, special agent with the Service’s St. Peters, Missouri, Law Enforcement Office.  “Fisheries biologists are out on the river every day, so they can give us the insight we need to enforce commercial fishing regulations.”

“When we pulled a net, we would check to see if it was in violation of any state rules or regulations. We would check to see if the nets were properly tagged, and what type of fish they were set for – paddlefish, sturgeon, catfish, etc.,” said Burleson.  “If we encountered a violation, such as a pallid sturgeon caught in the net, we would set up surveillance and wait for the commercial fisherman to return.”

If a pallid sturgeon is caught in a commercial fishing net and released, no action is taken.   However, if the pallid sturgeon is kept, prosecution is a possibility.
“Some fishermen can’t tell male from female, so they will insert a turkey-baster type of needle into the abdomen to check for eggs,” said Burleson. “Others make a larger incision in the stomach.”  The incision leaves behind what fish biologists term “check marks” on the abdomen of the fish. Law enforcement officers and fish biologists monitoring sturgeon use these check marks to provide information on locations of commercial harvesters depending on where the fish is found.

“It’s hard to tell how many fish die from this methodology,” said Dr. Hill. “There’s always the possibility of infection.”

Since the late 1990s, six cases of pallid sturgeon caught by commercial fishermen have been documented. Several of the cases were prosecuted in state or federal court; one federal case is pending.  Cases were prosecuted under state wildlife laws, the Lacey Act, or the Endangered Species Act.
The lucrative caviar market, coupled with the suspected take of federally endangered pallid sturgeon by commercial fishing, will continue to challenge the pallid sturgeon’s recovery.  The Service has proposed to treat the shovelnose sturgeon as a threatened species under the “Similarity of Appearances” provisions of the Endangered Species Act to provide further protection for pallid sturgeon. Should the proposed rule be accepted, shovelnose sturgeon will be treated as a threatened species where the two species’ ranges overlap, making commercial fishing of shovelnose sturgeon in those areas illegal. A final decision on the proposal is expected in fall 2010.

For information on endangered species work in the Midwest, visit  


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fisheries biologists and law enforcement officers are teaming up to help conserve the endangered pallid sturgeon.  USFWS photo.