Fight for Survival

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Published on: Nov. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 17, 2010

Mississippi rivers, pollution and the introduction of exotic species, have contributed to the decline of these species.

Sturgeon are excellent barometers of big river environmental conditions because of their wide distribution, migratory nature and diverse habitat requirements. For most of their existence, sturgeon thrived in the diverse habitat that was once found in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Historically, our big rivers were wide and shallow, consisting of braided channels, sand bars, gravel bars, sand shoals and numerous wetlands.

Shallow areas with gentle current served as nursery and seasonal habitat for most fish species, including sturgeon. However, development of the big rivers for flood control and commercial navigation has adversely altered much of the 3,350 miles of river habitat in the sturgeons' range.

In the last 65 years, 28 percent of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers have been impounded by dams, creating unsuitable, lake-like habitat. More than 50 percent of each river's length now consists of deep, uniform, fast flowing, restructured channels, and 95 percent of the wetlands have been eliminated.

Commercial fishing and overharvest also have had a big impact on sturgeon. During the late 1800s, lake sturgeon were so common that people indiscriminately killed them to prevent them from damaging fishing nets. Rendering plants processed them for fertilizer, and steamboats burned their oily flesh for fuel. People also developed a taste for their flesh and eggs. By the mid 1900s, both lake and pallid sturgeon were already considered rare. Their numbers have continued to decline.

Of our three species, the shovelnose sturgeon is the only species that can be legally harvested. It managed to escape serious exploitation until recently, when interest in shovelnose caviar increased.

From 1998 to 2001, the shovelnose sturgeon harvest on the Mississippi River by commercial fishermen increased more than tenfold. This dramatic increase concerns biologists.

The demand for shovelnose sturgeon continues to increase despite health advisories issued by the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services that warn of high contaminant levels in the fish and their eggs.

Road to Recovery

During the early 1990s, the Conservation Department developed "action plans" to help the recovery of lake and pallid sturgeon. Goals of the plans are to reestablish self-sustaining populations so they can be delisted as endangered species and ultimately provide limited sport fisheries. These plans stress the restoration of both species through habitat improvement, artificial propagation, protection, research, management and education. The Department has

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