Learn about the Gulf sturgeon and how you can reduce your risk of impact with these large jumping fish.
Gulf sturgeon are present in the Suwannee River as well as most other rivers in Northwest Florida, including the Apalachicola, Choctawhatchee, Yellow, Blackwater, Escambia, Pearl and Pascagoula.
The sturgeon’s roots go back 200 million years. As it has for eons, the fish makes its presence known by jumping out of the water. With adult sturgeon reaching up to 8 feet in length and weighing up to 200 pounds, they can make quite a splash.
Boaters have been injured when they collide with the jumping fish. Passengers have been hit while they were seated in a boat’s bow. There’s no warning; the sturgeon just jump. If a boater is passing through when the fish is in the air, there’s a chance of injury.
In past years, boaters have been injured by direct strikes with sturgeon. In 2015, there were five reportable accidents involving sturgeon strikes. Three accidents occurred on the Suwannee River and two occurred on the Santa Fe River. The accidents involved one fatality and eight injuries.
Why do sturgeon jump? Scientists have determined that the fish jump to communicate with other sturgeon and to refill their swim bladder so they can maintain neutral buoyancy. The sturgeon certainly do make an impression with their aerial maneuvers.
While it is possible for sturgeon to jump anywhere in the river, the fish in the Suwannee are more commonly observed jumping where they gather in “holding” areas. Major holding areas in the Suwannee occur above Jack's Sandbar; below Manatee Springs; between Fanning Springs and Usher Landing; below Old Town Trestle; below the confluence of the Santa Fe and Suwannee rivers; near Rock Bluff; and below Anderson Springs.
What Boaters Can Do
Go slow:The best course of action is to go slow. This gives the captain more time to react and if you are hit, the force of the blow is much less at 10 mph than it is at 35 mph. Slow down and enjoy the river.
Wear your life jacket: Some boaters don’t like wearing a life jacket due to its bulkiness or fit. However, there are lighter, more compact and less restrictive models on the market. They include lightweight, over-the-shoulder and belt-type inflatables, in addition to vest-type life jackets. If you’re knocked out of a boat, hurt, and unconscious, a life jacket will help keep you afloat.
Stay off the bow: When traveling through areas where sturgeon known to jump, keep passengers off the bow of the vessel. Passengers riding on the bow have been injured when they’ve been struck by leaping sturgeon.
Be alert: Pay attention to your surroundings. If you’re in an area where you see sturgeon jumping, slow down. The fish tend to stay in the deeper sections of the river and avoid the shoreline.
Designate an operator: Don’t boat and drink. If you’re impaired, you have slower reaction times. If alcohol is consumed on a vessel, appoint a designated operator.
The Suwannee River is a beautiful part of Florida and should be enjoyed. The FWC wants boaters to know that these fish are out there and they do jump. Just be prepared, go slow, wear your life jacket and have fun.
Scientists estimate there are approximately 10,000 adult Gulf sturgeon that make the Suwannee their summer home, with far fewer numbers in the six other major rivers where Gulf sturgeon are known to spawn. The Suwannee River, which flows from the Okefenokee Swamp in southeastern Georgia down through northern Florida, is one of the most pristine rivers in the country - it has no dams which prevent sturgeons from moving up- and downstream. The Suwannee is considered one of the last “wild” rivers in Florida.
These fish use almost the entire length of the river to complete their complicated life history. The sturgeon spawning grounds on the Suwannee are 140 miles upstream from the mouth. Unlike salmon, which die after spawning in freshwater, sturgeon -- which can live to be 25-plus years old -- spend summer in the river, then swim back down the river to winter in the Gulf.
During the winter, sturgeon return to the eastern Gulf of Mexico where they feed heartily. They typically do not eat while they are in the river -- losing somewhere around 20 percent of their body mass. Because of this extended fast, biologists wonder why the fish would use energy to jump out of the water.
When they do eat, Gulf sturgeon are bottom feeders. They have barbells, catfish-like whiskers that help them search for prey, which they vacuum up with their sucker mouths.
Gulf sturgeon were federally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1991
Gulf sturgeon facts
- Females grow larger than the males.
- They eat insect larvae, worms and other small organisms found in sand. After the first 9 months of life, sturgeon feed only in saltwater during the winter. They don’t eat while in the rivers.
- Anadromous – they migrate back and forth between freshwater and saltwater (Gulf of Mexico).
- The fish prefer unobstructed, sandy area in mid-river and deep, dark water. Rests in deep river holding areas from spring until fall.
- Sturgeon swim over 100 miles upriver in spring. Females deposit more than 200,000 eggs on gravel.
- Alligators and sharks are predators. Fish eat many eggs, larvae and baby sturgeon.
To report sturgeon strikes, call the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922 (FWCC).