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Gulf Sturgeon Research

The Suwannee river is home to the largest population of Gulf sturgeon in Florida. Watch this video to learn about sturgeon research.

Living with Sturgeon

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.

Be Aware

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.

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.

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?
Researchers have discovered why sturgeon jump. There are two reasons for this activity. Jumping helps the fish equalize pressure in their swim bladder. When the ambient pressure changes during a high or low front, or when the fish move to a different depth in the river, their bladder will expand or shrink. By jumping, they can gulp in air needed to maintain neutral buoyancy.  The other reason they jump is to communicate with other sturgeon. 

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?

Below is a list showing the number of reported strikes by year in the Suwannee River:

2006 – Nine reported strikes resulting in 11 injuries. 
2007 – Seven reported strikes resulting in nine injuries.
2008 – Three reported strikes resulting in three injuries.
2009 – Two reported strikes resulting in one injury.
2010 – No strikes reported.
2011 – Eleven reported strikes resulting in six injuries.
2012 – Two reported strikes resulting in two injuries.
2013 – No strikes reported.
2014 – No strikes reported.
2015 – Three strikes reported resulting in one fatality and five injuries.

Additionally, there was one reported strike in 2013 on the Choctawhatchee River resulting in one injury and two reported strikes in 2015 on the Santa Fe River resulting in three injuries.

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. The best course of action is to go slow, wear your life jacket, and stay off the bow of the boat. 

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 there are about 10,000 adult sturgeon that come into the Suwannee to spawn. 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.

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

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has created decals and signs to promote safe boating activities in the Suwannee River to help reduce the risk of collisions with sturgeon.

Sturgeon Decal
The sturgeon decal is available at no charge by contacting the FWC North Central Regional Office at (386) 758-0525.

Sturgeon Signs
The original "Be Aware" sign was created in 2006. The new "Be Aware" sign was created in 2011. Signs are installed at each boat ramp along the Suwannee River to warn boaters about these jumping fish.

The gulf sturgeon is a subspecies of the Atlantic sturgeon and was first described and recognized as a subspecies in 1955. Besides genetic differences, gulf sturgeon differ from the Atlantic sturgeon in relative head length and pectoral fin length, shape of dorsal scutes (bony plates), and length and position of the spleen. It is very difficult to visually differentiate gulf from Atlantic sturgeon. Gulf sturgeon are native to the Gulf of Mexico, from Florida to Louisiana.

Gulf sturgeon were listed as a threatened species on October 30, 1991, pursuant to the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Gulf sturgeon have been covered under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since April 1, 1998. Appendix II includes species that may become threatened with extinction if their trade is not regulated and monitored.

The gulf sturgeon is an ancient fish first appearing in the fossil record 225 million years ago and evolving to its current form around the same time as sharks. They have a cartilaginous backbone and external scutes, which cover their head and the top part of their body. In addition, they have an asymmetrical caudal (tail) fin with the top half being larger than the bottom half. The head of the gulf sturgeon consists of a long snout preceded by four sensitive tactile barbels (fleshy protuberances similar in function to cat's whiskers) which sense prey.

The gulf sturgeon is anadromous and spends the major part of the year in freshwater, migrating to saltwater in the fall. Gulf sturgeon return to their natal stream to spawn. The best river habitat for gulf sturgeon are long, spring-fed free-flowing rivers. Steep banks and a hard bottom with an average water temperature of 60 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit are also characteristic of rivers where sturgeon inhabit. Sturgeon occupy the river bottom downstream of springs where they seek thermal refuge during hot summer days. Movement from the gulf and up-river movement generally occurs between February and April, while down-river movement occurs between September and November.

Sturgeon can live to be over 40 years old. Some sturgeon species can reach 10 to 12 feet in length and weigh over 1,200 pounds; however, the gulf sturgeon averages five to six feet in length. Sexual maturity of the female gulf sturgeon range from eight to seventeen years; whereas, male gulf sturgeon mature between seven and twelve years of age.

Adult sturgeon primarily feed during the winter months in marine or brackish water; however, adult sturgeon eat very little during their time in freshwater rivers. The gulf sturgeon diet consists of benthic-dwelling organisms such as isopods, amphipods, mollusks, crabs, grass shrimp, marine worms, and insect larvae. The gulf sturgeon's mouth is tubelike and toothless. It operates like a vacuum and can suck shrimp and polychaete worms from their burrows.

Three Species of Sturgeon

Three species of sturgeon can be found in Florida: Atlantic sturgeon (Acipsener oxyrinchus oxyrinchus), Gulf sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi) and shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum). All three species have a round body imbedded with an armor of five rows of bony plates or scutes. They have no bony skeleton. They also have no teeth and the upper lobe of the tail is longer than the lower lobe similar to sharks. All three species are anadromous, meaning that they move from saltwater to freshwater to spawn. Florida sturgeon can live long lives, exceeding 25 years in some cases.

Atlantic sturgeon occur along the northeast Atlantic coast and Gulf sturgeon, a subspecies of Atlantic sturgeon, occur along the gulf coast. Shortnose sturgeon have been found in the St. John's River, although recent research indicates that their overall occurrence is very rare.

ATLANTIC STURGEON

Scientific Name: Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus

Size: Six to eight feet in length and up to 300 pounds

Florida Range: Occur along the northeast Atlantic coast to Cape Canaveral

Status: Species of Special Concern (Florida); under consideration for Threatened status by federal agencies; currently managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC).

Notes: It is almost impossible to visually differentiate from Gulf sturgeon. DNA analysis is the most reliable method to distinguish between the Gulf sturgeon and the Atlantic sturgeon when the capture site is unknown.

GULF STURGEON

Scientific Name: Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi

Size: Grow to between six and eight feet long and weigh over 200 pounds

Florida Range: Occur along the gulf coast; native populations are present in the Suwannee and the Florida Panhandle rivers. There are rare captures in Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor.

Status: Species of Special Concern (Florida); Threatened (Federal)

Notes: It is almost impossible to visually differentiate from Gulf sturgeon. DNA analysis is the most reliable method to distinguish between the Gulf sturgeon and the Atlantic sturgeon when the capture site is unknown.

SHORTNOSE STURGEON

Scientific Name: Acipenser brevirostrum

Size: Grow to between three and four feet in length

Florida Range: Northeast Atlantic coast and possibly the St. Johns River

Status: Endangered (Florida); Endangered (Federal)

Notes: Have a wider mouth and proportionally shorter snout than other two sturgeon species. Smaller in size than the Atlantic sturgeon, but is sometimes mistaken for juvenile Atlantic sturgeon.

Report Sturgeon Strikes

To report sturgeon strikes, call the Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922 (FWCC).

Sturgeon Photo Gallery