For the first time in 30 years, the Missouri Department of Conservation has confirmed evidence that the state-endangered lake sturgeon is reproducing in the wild.
Sam Hardy and Kristin Biagioli witnessed the sturgeon spawning first-hand in the Mississippi River north of St. Louis in mid-April.
“The closer we got the more we saw that it wasn't just one or two. There were 10 or 12 of them and we could have reached out and grabbed their tails,” Hardy said. "All of a sudden when the waves would roll we'd see them belly to belly. And that's when I picked up on it. I knew that they weren't just sitting there feeding."
After confirming via cellphone footage that the fish were indeed lake sturgeon, department biologists visited the West Alton, Mo. spawning site and collected eggs, said Dan Zarlenga of the Missouri Department of Conservation.
“And they did hatch in the lab, so that means they were indeed fertilized,” Zarlenga said. “And then they also went to the sites and actually saw recently-hatched fish in the water too, so (the fish) also were hatching in the water. So that was double confirmation.”
Cellphone footage of lake sturgeon spawning on the Mississippi River near West Alton, Mo. captured by Sam Hardy and Kristin Biagioli in mid-April 2015.
Low population levels due to over-harvesting and habitat degradation prompted the conservation department to place the lake sturgeon on the state-endangered list in 1974 and forbid anglers from catching the giant, bone-plated fish.
The department began raising lake sturgeon and reintroducing them into the wild in 1984.
“Now these fish, because they are long lived — a 100 to a 150 years — they also take quite a while to reach reproductive maturity. They take on the order of 25 to 30 years (to reproduce),” Zarlenga said. “Up to this point we’d had no evidence that the fish were reproducing in the wild. All the fish were basically stocked.”
In addition to having to be old enough to reproduce, river conditions have to be just right for spawning to take place, Zarlenga said.
“These are really interesting fish. As I mentioned, they’re extremely large. They developed on Earth back in the Jurassic period, so they were around with the dinosaurs. They outlived the dinosaurs and they’re still here with us. So they’re a really cool fish, and it’s great to see them on the way to becoming a permanent part of our Missouri riverways once again,” Zarlenga said.
Lake sturgeon can be found in the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and their tributaries. They can grow as long as 8 feet and weigh up to 300 pounds. Their smaller cousins, the pallid sturgeon, are also endangered both in Missouri and throughout the United States.
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.