Only found dwelling west of the Apalachicola River, alligator gar are one of the most mysterious fish in Florida. Learn more about this species and ongoing alligator gar research throughout Florida's Panhandle.
In Florida, the largest member of the gar family is only known to inhabit coastal rivers in the Panhandle from Gulf County to Escambia County.
Finding alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula) can be a challenge, but it’s one biologists with the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) are taking on to learn more about the population of the fish in Florida. Alligator gar have historically resided in rivers and brackish waters throughout the southeastern U.S. from the Florida Panhandle – from the Apalachicola River west to the Perdido River – to Texas and Mexico. Since the mid-1900s, alligator gar numbers have declined, leaving populations in only half of the 14 states they once inhabited. The FWC acknowledged this in 2006, prohibiting harvest of alligator gar for all but scientific purposes.
Since 2010, FWRI researchers have been tagging alligator gar in the Escambia River to learn more about their movement and habitat use. Using large-mesh gill nets, researchers collect adult alligator gar and fit them with telemetry tags before releasing them back into the river. These tags transmit information through radio and sound signals, allowing researchers to track each individual’s location for about two years.
Three years into the study, researchers have tagged 22 alligator gar ranging from 11 pounds to a state record 132 pounds; tagged fish average 60 pounds. Researchers are trying to identify what habitats these fish prefer, how far they travel and whether they return to the same location over time. Preliminary tracking data indicate alligator gar are highly mobile and can travel more than 40 miles in a single week
The data also reveal their movement and habitat use varies by season. In winter, the tagged fish tend to reside in a slough – a cove off the main river with no current – and move very little. As the season changes to spring, they begin traveling the river’s main channel but return repeatedly to the slough. Only in late spring did the gar venture from their home-base slough and begin cruising. Biologists recorded alligator gar moving as far north as the Alabama state line and as far south as Escambia Bay during this time.
No population data for alligator gar in Florida currently exist. However, data from this tagging study are helping biologists develop a strategy for estimating the population size of alligator gar, first in the Escambia River, then possibly in other rivers in northwest Florida’s coastal plain. If the numbers are promising, resource managers could revisit harvest regulations. FWRI biologists will continue to research the population status of alligator gar in Florida, and the more we learn about this species, the more we can focus conservation efforts to protect it.
Some anglers may wonder why the FWC moved to protect alligator gar. While some anglers enjoy the sport of pursuing and catching this species, other anglers actually consider it a "trash" fish, not worth their efforts. FWC biologists believe no native fish is a trash fish. In fact, alligator gar play an important role in river ecosystems. This species represents a critical component of the food web as a top carnivore. Unfortunately, the numbers of alligator gar in much of their range have decreased. That’s why the FWC strengthened protection for this species.
In 2006, FWC Commissioners decided no one may take or possess alligator gar in Florida waters without a special permit. The FWC may issue these permits for scientific research and management efforts.
Alligator gar is one of the most distinctive freshwater fish species and the largest of all gar. They can exceed 200 pounds and grow to more than 6 feet long. The species gets its name from having the body of a typical gar and a head that resembles that of an alligator. Because of their huge size and great strength, alligator gar are popular with anglers; however, the popularity of this fish does not reflect its value as a human food source. While edible, they are not highly desired by most people, and, as with other gars, their roe is toxic.
It's difficult to catch alligator gar on a hook and line because of their strength and sharp teeth, and those fish caught via hook and line are susceptible to death from the stress of the fight and handling. Bow-fishing, a popular method of harvesting gar and other nongame fish, guarantees the fish will not survive.
Alligator gar occur in rivers and sometimes brackish waters across the southeastern U.S. from Florida to Texas and into Mexico. In Florida, they do not occur farther east than the Apalachicola River in the Panhandle. Previously, this species' range extended to the upper reaches of the Mississippi River in Illinois, Ohio and Missouri. Now, the species is declining or completely absent from the edges of its historical range.
Recent studies in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana suggest alligator gar are very susceptible to over-fishing. Similar to other large fish species, such as sturgeon, alligator gar can live a long time. Typically, long-lived species do not reach sexual maturity for many years. Male alligator gar take six years to reach maturity and can live approximately 26 years, while females reach maturity in 11 years and can live 50 years. Since this species cannot reproduce until later in life when they are larger, they are susceptible to over-harvesting. Reproduction potential directly relates to size in alligator gar. In other words, bigger fish have more offspring. This was an important consideration for managers determining how to best protect Florida’s alligator gar.
Recognizing the decline of this species’ population, several other southeastern states, including Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, also have identified the need for conservation of alligator gar. FWC biologists continue to learn more about the cause of these declines and work to develop a plan to revitalize the population. The technical knowledge gained through this research will guide efforts to manage alligator gar, and Florida's other fish and wildlife resources, for their long-term well-being and the benefit of people.