Many of you read the Memphis Flyer cover story that we wrote about the Big Island Circumnavigation. We’re thrilled about how it turned out. But ten days on three wild rivers could fill an entire magazine, and some things had to be left out. One of our favorite facets of the expedition was partnering with the US Fish and Wildlife service to track tagged fish. With the help of a sonar radar, we hoped to find, among other species, the endangered Pallid Sturgeon. Dino fish.
For 70 million years, this beautifully bizarre alligator/catfish/shark amalgam has cruised the river bottom, using its long snout to stir up larva and fish from the mud. It has survived droughts, floods, meteor strikes, and countless other disturbances of the universe. But leave it to good old homo sapien to lumber in the picture and wreak havoc on a resilient creature. Damming and habitat loss in the last hundred years has nearly killed the species – a species whose biology is nearly the same as it was when T-Rex walked the banks of the Mississippi.
The US Fish and Wildlife’s “Pallid Posse,” which tags and studies the fish, had not monitored the lower Arkansas River for the sturgeon in recent years. So we teamed up with them and dragged their brick-sized sonar behind one of our canoes during the Big Island Circumnavigation. With the hopes of hundreds of kids riding in our vessels, we crossed our fingers that our expedition would come back with a dinosaur.
And we did.
It was a rare bright day on that expedition and the sun was high. We had just left the flooded forest at the entrance of our base camp and pointed our canoes downstream on the rising White River. At 11 in the morning (not that anyone had a “watch”) on February 27th, about five miles up from the confluence with the Mississippi, a young female Shovelnose Sturgeon swam beneath our boats. And that split second of movement, far from our consciousness that morning and invisible to our eyes, was seen by the little black telemetry pod behind our boat.
FWS had caught the fish back in January, and after a brief surgery on the boat to install a tracking device the size of a roll of quarters, they released her for tracking.
While it wasn’t the highly endangered Pallid species we hoped to find, the Shovelnose has a similarly interesting and scary story of its own to tell about the Mississippi River Valley. The Shovelnose is the smallest of the sturgeon species. While the great Pallid can grow up to six feet and weigh 100 lbs, this smaller counterpart won’t likely exceed five pounds. It’s an opportunist feeder that combs the sandy river bottoms in swift currents, looking for mussels, larvae, worms, and whatever else it can find. How, you ask, can it see anything down there in that deep muddy darkness? It uses its beard. Highly-adapted fringed “barbels” drag along the river bottom to sense prey. When it does, the sturgeon lets out a vacuum cleaner-like tube from its mouth to suck the unlucky bottom dwellers to their demise.
The Shovelnose has been labeled as “vulnerable” on the threatened species spectrum, mostly because of the lock-and-dam systems along the valley. The wily species used to be abundant everywhere from Montana to Pennsylvania, but it has disappeared in the Ohio River and is rare in many upstream states. It’s the only North American sturgeon that can still be commercially fished, mostly for its abundant roe. Wildlife groups are watching closely as Black Sea and Caspian caviar sources become more and more depleted and the market moves towards the Mississippi River. Many fisheries, however, are closed where Pallid and Shovelnose species co-occur.
As the swift-moving rivers that sturgeon love have been pooled by dams, the various species have had to begin sharing spawning grounds, and species have begun to mix. Scientists have seen a fascinating hybrid species of Pallid and Shovelnose sturgeon spring up in recent years. Little is known about this evolution, which is understandable, since scientists can’t even yet pinpoint sturgeon spawning patterns.
But, thanks to that brick-sized sonar bobbing behind the stern of our canoes in February, we now know just a little bit more about this fish. The Shovelnose that we detected had been tagged about a hundred miles upstream. Tyler Young, a graduate student with Mississippi State University and the Pallid Posse, says it’s “pretty cool to see a fish move that much in one month,” but the exact reasons for such a long swim are still mysteries. “Only time and continued detections will help us determine the causes of these long-range movements.”
It is amazing to see the migration of a mysterious fish. It is amazing that human beings have developed such special eyes to watch a fish at all. It’s amazing that worlds once invisible to us are now, just barely, at our paddletips.
Chris “Wolfie” Staudinger
Big Muddy Mike Clark + telemetry unit, Mississippi River
White River Storm Camp, 27th February