Gulf Sturgeon: Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi
What is there to appreciate about a big fish? Plenty, say scientists who study the Gulf sturgeon. The Gulf sturgeon grows to greater than six feet in length, sports bony plates on its head and body, has fleshy "whiskers" on its long snout, and no internal skeleton. This ancient fish evolved from much larger ancestors that lived more than 225 million years ago. Gulf sturgeon may live for more than 40 years, not reaching sexual maturity until seven or eight years of age or later.
Sturgeon are anadromous, a term used to describe fish that spend a part of their lives in saltwater, yet travel upstream in freshwater rivers to spawn. Such fish return year after year to the same stream where they were hatched. For Gulf sturgeon, which are found from Florida to Louisiana, this means a move from salt to fresh water between February and April and a move downriver between September and November. They spend the winter in the Gulf of Mexico in sandy-bottom habitats six to 100 feet deep, where their diet consists of marine worms, grass shrimp, crabs and a variety of other bottom-dwelling organisms. They eat very little while in freshwater rivers.
Little is known about the early life stages of the Gulf sturgeon throughout its range. After the late 1800s, Gulf sturgeon populations declined dramatically, a result of the high demand for their delicious meat and valuable roe, and dam construction, dredging activity and other man-made habitat alterations. The decline prompted state and federal officials to place the sturgeon on the protected species lists in the 1980s and 1990s and to enact a harvesting and possession ban. Today, the free-flowing, spring-fed Suwannee River supports the largest and most robust population of Gulf sturgeon in the state and the wider Gulf of Mexico region. Adults spawn on scoured limestone substrates in the upper reaches of this 200-mile long river. As they swim along, sturgeon occasionally leap out of the water. Every spring and summer, lucky boaters and campers along the Suwannee River witness this spectacle. Power boaters can reduce the risk of injury to themselves and the fish by boating slower during the appropriate time of year. This also increases the chance of seeing the sturgeon and other wildlife along the way.
Image Credit: © Diane Rome Peebles