Many years ago, long before we knew how to spell TVA, huge lake sturgeon roamed the Tennessee River at will. This prehistoric species lived throughout eastern North America, as far south as the Tennessee River in Alabama. The fish grow to well over five feet long, weighing over a hundred pounds. Due to overfishing and habitat destruction and alteration (primarily TVA dams), lake sturgeon have been reduced to less than 1% of their original numbers, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. The last known naturally-occurring lake sturgeon documented by TWRA in the Tennessee River Basin was seen in Fort Loudon Reservoir in 1960. The lake sturgeon is now listed as endangered within Tennessee waters.
TWRA has committed to try and re-establish lake sturgeon in the Tennessee River system, and the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga is at the heart of that effort. The restoration begins with the collection of sturgeon eggs provided by northern states. The eggs are then hatched and distributed as fry to three other hatcheries to be grown out to a minimum of 5 inches before they are released. The Tennessee Aquarium Research Institute is one of those hatcheries and in some cases, the Aquarium's research team can grow larger sturgeon. These larger fish have a significantly higher chances of survival when released into the wild.
The Tennessee Aquarium has received relatively little exposure here at home for their efforts however. That's because to date, the young sturgeon they raise have been released far away from Chattanooga, in the French Broad River, a tributary to the Tennessee River near Knoxville. That's where biologists have determined the young lake sturgeon have a much better chance to survive and reproduce.
Next week however, the Aquarium staff and TWRA biologists will be joined by students from Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy for a special sturgeon release in Chattanooga.
It happens Thursday at 11 am, rain or shine, beneath the Walnut St. Bridge at Coolidge Park. The students will help biologists tag 25 lake sturgeon, 2 - 3 feet long, and then release them into the Tennessee River.
Aquarium spokesperson Thom Benson says this release is a one-time effort in Chattanooga, primarily to give youngsters the chance to learn about a unique environmental resource ... and to educate the public about the Aquarium's efforts.
"The Aquarium and TWRA recognize the value of media coverage," said Benson. "It’s a great program and keeping it visible ultimately helps fund the future success of this, and other conservation programs. I honestly believe that if people can feel a connection to nature, they’re going to be more passionate about helping protect and preserve it. The Calvin Donaldson students will become big advocates for the natural world. I hope their enthusiasm will rub off on others."
A release of a mere 25 sturgeon into the Tennessee River is really a drop in the bucket. But the larger-sized, hardy fish have an excellent chance of survival. It doesn't mean they will stay in the immediate area however. Benson said that some of sturgeon released in the French Broad, north of Knoxville, have been recovered as far south as North Alabama.
TVA dams, which generally prevent fishes free movement up and down the river, have been cited as one reason for the decline of sturgeon and some other species. Biologists believe however that if enough sturgeon can be restored to the river system, they can sustain a self-perpetuating population. To date a total of 90,000 sturgeon fingerlings have been released into the Tennessee and Cumberland River systems.
Of course a release of 2 - 3 foot sturgeon in downtown Chattanooga means there is at least some chance that a fisherman will catch one.
IT IS ILLEGAL TO KEEP A STURGEON!
They are considered an endangered species in Tennessee and captured sturgeon must be immediately released. Mere possession is against the law.
However, if you observe a sturgeon, even a dead one, please contact TWRA. Please make note of exactly where and when the fish was caught, its approximate size, and how it was caught. TWRA provides a Lake Sturgeon Certificate to anglers who have caught and released lake sturgeon. You can contact TWRA in Nashville at (615) 781-6575 or at 1-800-262-6704.
Lake Stugeon are identified by the sharp, bony plates along their backs and sides, a shark-like tail, a sucker-like mouth, and four barbels or "whiskers" just in front of their mouths. Like sharks, sturgeon don't have bony support and their internal organs can be damaged when flopping around out of water.
Benson says in one case when TWRA biologists were questioning a fisherman to confirm that he had indeed caught a lake sturgeon, the man told them he knew it was a sturgeon "Because I touched one at the Tennessee Aquarium.”