Suwannee River Sturgeon FAQ

View answers to questions about Gulf sturgeon and encounters boaters have had with jumping sturgeon in the Suwannee River.

How big do Gulf sturgeon get?
Gulf sturgeon may reach a maximum size of about eight feet and weigh approximately 150-220 pounds. Most males stop growing at about five feet. Most Gulf sturgeon exceeding this length are females. Females grow large and develop a great number of large eggs.

A 503-pound sturgeon (possibly a Gulf sturgeon) was captured at the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1936. In recent decades, the largest reported Gulf sturgeon was a 300-pound fish from the Pearl River, Louisiana.

How long do Gulf sturgeon live?
The life expectancy for Gulf sturgeon is between 20-42 years. The oldest age documented for a tagged and recaptured Suwannee River Gulf sturgeon is about 27-28 years. A Gulf sturgeon caught in the Suwannee River in the early 1970s was aged at 42 years.

How many eggs does a female Gulf sturgeon produce?
An individual female will produce between 200,000-500,000 eggs per spawning cycle. She will spawn multiple times during her lifetime. However, mortality from all causes, including natural mortality from mishaps, predators, diseases and water quality, will claim most of the eggs, newly hatched, and juveniles before they reach maturity. So, only a very few eggs will eventually become adult sturgeon. Each female only needs to produce two successful offspring during her life to maintain a stable population.

What do Gulf sturgeon eat?
Gulf sturgeon feed on tiny aquatic insect larvae and other small aquatic invertebrates during the first few months of their life. However, after their first year of life in the river, Gulf sturgeon do not eat while in fresh water. Intensive feeding occurs in estuarine waters or in nearshore marine waters of the Gulf during winter. By feeding on small shrimp, crabs, worms, and mollusks during the winter, Gulf sturgeon increase greatly in weight. Then, from March-April through October-November, they do not feed. Instead, they use energy stored in their body fat and muscle. During the summer-fall period of fasting, sturgeon may lose up to 20 percent of their body weight. This weight loss is more than compensated for during the next round of winter feeding, when Gulf sturgeon may increase their body weight by as much as 50 percent.

Do sturgeon form schools?
Unlike many coastal and river-dwelling fishes, Gulf sturgeon do not school but congregate. Behaving more like herd animals, they gather loosely during the winter feeding period and during the summer fasting period. They may also move in loosely-organized groups during the spring and fall migration.

Can sturgeon bite?
No, as sturgeon have no teeth. They feed by sucking in their food. Prey is detected by taste and touch by four sensitive barbells in front of the mouth, and by a system of sensors on the underside of their long, flat snout.

Why do large male sturgeon netted in spring and fall have red, raw snouts?
During spawning, which takes place at night, several males may compete for one female. Spawning males repeatedly rub their snouts against the flanks of the female. Their snouts become red, raw, and sometimes bloody from abrasion against the bony scutes of the female. The abdomen of the female also becomes pink or red from the same rubbing behavior. When captured in large mesh nets made of multi-filament twine (instead of monofilament), they are rarely injured in any way. Since a few fish may spawn in fall, red snouts and flanks may also be observed then.

Why do sturgeon jump?
There are several theories about why sturgeon jump. However, no one knows exactly why they leap out of the water. Researchers have noted that sturgeon jumping produces a distinctive, characteristic sound pattern, therefore suggesting that jumping may be a form of sturgeon-to-sturgeon communication. While the specific reason is unknown, researchers agree that the jumping activity must be important since considerable energy is expended to launch a large sturgeon six feet into the air.

When do sturgeon jump?
Sturgeon are generally observed jumping during the summer and fall months (May-October). Jumping occurs most frequently in mid-summer (May-early August) in rivers when sturgeon are fasting. Therefore, jumping has nothing to do with feeding. Jumping occurs intensely at dawn and dusk and less frequently in between.

Where do sturgeon jump?
Gulf sturgeon are known to jump in a few Florida rivers, including the Suwannee River. While it is possible for sturgeon to jump anywhere in the river, sturgeon in the Suwannee River are more commonly observed jumping in certain parts of the river where sturgeon gather, referred to as 'holding' areas. Major holding areas in the Suwannee River occur above Jack's Sandbar; below Manatee Springs; between Fanning Spring and Usher Landing; below Old Town Trestle; below the conjunction of the Santa Fe and Suwannee Rivers; near Rock Bluff; and below Anderson Springs. There are a number of less important holding areas.

Do sturgeon attack boats?
No. As part of their natural behavior in summer holding areas, sturgeon frequently jump straight out of the water, turning sideways and landing with a loud noise. Much like deer hit by cars, jumping sturgeon are sometimes struck by boats. A large sturgeon can weigh more than 100 pounds, so impact with a fast-moving boat can cause serious injury to both boat passengers and the sturgeon alike.

Have people been injured by jumping sturgeon?
Yes, people have sustained injuries related to jumping sturgeon. Injuries have resulted when jumping sturgeon have come into direct contact with people and when people have responded to avoid collisions with jumping sturgeon.

How many people have been injured in the Suwannee River by jumping sturgeon?
Detailed records of injuries were not maintained prior to 2006. According to available data, in 2006, nine people were injured by direct contact with jumping sturgeon and two people were injured when their boat hit a bridge piling after they swerved to avoid a jumping sturgeon. In 2007, nine people were injured by direct contact with jumping sturgeon and one person drowned after being ejected into the water when the boat he was riding in swerved to avoid a jumping sturgeon.

How can I avoid being injured by a jumping sturgeon?
The Suwannee River is a beautiful river that should be treasured and enjoyed by everyone. However, the risk of being struck by a sturgeon does exist during the spring/summer/fall months. It is recommended that while on the river, boaters go slow and watch out for jumping sturgeon. By going slow, boaters will have more time to react and the slow speed lowers the risk of serious injury if there is direct contact with a jumping sturgeon. Warning signs are posted at locations along the river advising boaters to slow down in known holding/jumping areas to reduce the potential of collisions between jumping sturgeon and boats.

What should I do if I am hit by a sturgeon?
If you are injured, seek medical attention. Collisions with sturgeon should be reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission by calling the FWC Wildlife Alert hotline at 1-888-404-3922.

How many Gulf sturgeon are in the Suwannee River?
Biologists estimate about 10,000 - 14,000 sturgeon live in the Suwannee River. Adult populations in other Gulf Coast rivers range from a few hundred to about 2,000.

Why are there so many sturgeon in the Suwannee River?
There are smaller sturgeon populations in other Florida rivers, particularly in the Panhandle, but the largest population is in the Suwannee River. The Suwannee is considered one of the last "wild" rivers in Florida. There are no man-made structures or dams on the river and the sturgeon have access to the entire river. Water and habitat quality in the river are good.

Why do Gulf sturgeon come into the Suwannee River? Aren't they really marine fish?
Gulf sturgeon are called anadromous fishes, from the Greek, meaning fishes that travel back and forth between fresh and salt water. They feed in marine waters but they must return to freshwater rivers to spawn in early spring and then they loiter in the rivers until fall.

Except when they jump, why are sturgeon rarely seen or caught in the Suwannee River?
Much of Gulf sturgeon behavior, including spawning and the fall migration from the river to the Gulf, takes place at the bottom of the river, in dark tannic (tea-colored) water, or nocturnally (at night). Fingerlings are nocturnal, rarely venturing into shallow water along the riverbank in the daytime, or into the clear waters of spring outflows. In addition, anglers rarely catch larger sturgeon on fishing gear because Gulf sturgeon generally do not feed in the river.

Are Gulf sturgeon found in the smaller tributaries of the Suwannee River?
Almost all sturgeon species are adapted to live primarily in large rivers. They generally do not go into small streams and tributaries, or do so only briefly for spawning. Although abundant in the lower and middle Suwannee River, Gulf sturgeon are also occasionally found in the upper Suwannee, Santa Fe and Alapaha rivers, and venture only a short distance up the larger Withlacoochee River (a tributary of the Suwannee). In the Suwannee, adults are rarely found above the point where the Withlacoochee River joins the Suwannee River, except during the spawning season.

Can Gulf sturgeon be harvested?
Gulf sturgeon are protected by Florida law and listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. They are protected from fishing or other harvest. It is illegal to keep or injure a Gulf sturgeon.

Why are Gulf sturgeon protected?
Gulf sturgeon have been federally listed as a threatened species since 1991 and protected by Florida law since 1984. These protections were needed to counter the effects of habitat loss caused by river damming and commercial harvesting. Development, surface mining and declining water quality continue to threaten Gulf sturgeon today. Dams on some rivers cut off access to upriver spawning grounds, preventing reproduction.

Would releasing hatchery-raised sturgeon help the Gulf sturgeon population?
The Suwannee River has a large, healthy, naturally-reproducing Gulf sturgeon population. Currently, it is not necessary to consider stock enhancement to maintain or supplement the wild population.



FWC Facts:
Gulf sturgeon can grow to a maximum length of about 8 feet and weigh approximately 150-220 pounds.

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