For the last 20 years David Matthews, an aquatic zoologist at Tennessee Valley Authority, has been working with other federal and state agencies to get the massive, bottom-feeding fish on the river to recovery, reintroducing the ancient creatures to the depths of the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers.
“This is one of the biggest fish conservation initiatives in the country right now,” Dr. Matthews said. “It’s one thing to stock fish in a creek. Stocking over 300 miles of river system from Knoxville to Guntersville, Alabama, takes it to a whole new level. We are really seeing signs that populations are growing across both the Cumberland and Tennessee watersheds.”
Decades ago, TVA dams affected the fish. But with careful study, changes in TVA river management practices and introduction of TVA oxygenation systems, Dr. Matthews is seeing progress. “It’s come full circle and now we are on the leading edge of helping to restore the population.”
Sturgeon in the Valley region are benefiting from strict water quality laws, fishing limits and stocking programs led by Federal and State partner hatcheries in Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, North and South Carolina. Every spring, a team from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and TVA travel to Wisconsin to collect thousands of eggs from giant spawners.
Each year eggs are carefully incubated in seven hatcheries across the six southern states.
“You really don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket,” TWRA Assistant Chief of Fisheries Jason Henegar said. “We use different hatcheries to reduce the risk of something happening to that year’s hatching.”
Mr. Henegar says that once the fish grow to about 6 to 8 inches — the size thought to be optimal for survival — they are tagged and released into the rivers where they can be tracked and monitored for years to come.
The restocking effort in the Tennessee River began in the early 2000s. Now, the program has seen over 202,000 juvenile lake sturgeon released in the Tennessee, and an additional 55,000 in the Cumberland.
To generate public awareness, the sturgeon are released with a bit of fanfare. This includes the spring release ceremony at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, and Sturgeon Fest, an autumn event that invites Knox County schoolchildren to help release the fish into the French Broad River at Seven Islands State Birding Park. The French Broad is a tributary of the Tennessee.
Dr. Matthews is cautious, but hopes the river-wide reintroduction will be successful in the long term. “Our recapture efforts for population estimates are ongoing but the good news is that we’re not catching a lot of tagged fish, so that tells us there are a lot of fish out there, a sign of good survival,” he said. “Plus, we’re seeing a lot of age structure — different-sized fish — a good sign of a healthy population. To date we have seen several that were over a meter long.”