Monday, January 22, 2018
Outdoors

Leaping sturgeon a growing threat to boaters on Suwannee

Sharon Touchton had heard about the Suwannee River's famous jumping fish.

"I'm used to the water here on Tampa Bay," the St. Petersburg resident said. "So when I pictured a fish jumping, I immediately thought of mullet."

But the gulf sturgeon is nothing like the bay's iconic baitfish. The sturgeon, which has been swimming the earth's waters since the days of the dinosaurs, can weigh several hundred pounds.

"I had no idea how big they got," said Touchton, whose chance encounter with a sturgeon sent her to the hospital and left her scarred for life. "I wish I never found out."

In March 2007, Touchton, her husband and granddaughter joined a local personal watercraft club for a few days of fun on Florida's iconic river.

"She was riding ahead of me when I glanced over my shoulder to see where the other riders were," said her husband, Nick. "When I turned back around, she was face down in the water."

Nick jumped in and pulled his wife from the water. The collision with the prehistoric fish had left her unconscious. The creature's bony plates nearly severed four of her fingers.

"It was a nightmare," Sharon 55, said. "I wish I could forget it."

Sturgeon have been jumping each spring and summer in the Suwannee and a handful of other gulf coast rivers for millions of years. This natural behavior became a problem recently, when small, fast recreational watercraft became affordable to the average person and travel on the Suwannee increased.

"If you are running at a high rate of speed and a fish jumps, it is kind of hard to avoid it," said Jeff Wilcox, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "The fish can jump 9 feet in the air and weigh 300 pounds, so it would be like slamming into a mailbox at 30 miles per hour. They are a big piece of meat."

The number of sturgeon "strikes" varies from year to year. In 2010, there were no reported collisions. The following year, 11 people were injured by flying fish.

Nobody knows for sure why all species of sturgeon jump. One popular theory is that jumping helps dislodge parasites. But the Tallahassee-based Wilcox discounts that theory.

"These fish have been around a long time," he said. "Any parasite worth its salt would have figured out how to beat that defense in 200 million years."

Ken Sulak, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey in Gainesville, said he cringes when he sees news accounts referring to "attacks" by sturgeon. "They have tiny brains," he said. "They are not smart enough to attack."

Sturgeon spend the colder winter months in the Gulf of Mexico then around March begin to move into the river, where they remain through summer and fall.

The Suwannee, which flows for more than 250 miles from Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp to the Gulf of Mexico, is particularly attractive to the large fish in part because of the numerous springs that provide cool-water refuge when the weather gets hot.

In the late 1800s, gulf sturgeon supported a vibrant commercial fishery. But nobody had seen a live one in more than 100 years until March 2002 when one of these armor-plated fish washed up on Shore Acres.

Numbers began to slowly rebuild, then in 2006, when fish-related collisions began to increase, the FWC embarked on an ambitious public awareness campaign designed to reduce the accidents.

State officials posted signs at local ramps advising boaters of the danger. The best advice for those boaters, fishermen and PWC enthusiasts proved to be the simplest: slow down. It is much easier to avoid an airborne sturgeon at 10 mph than 35 mph.

If you are traveling through sturgeon waters, wear a personal flotation device, known as a PFD. If you end up unconscious and in the water, a PFD will keep you afloat.

Be aware of your surroundings. If you are motoring through an area and see a sturgeon jump, slow down. Where there is one, there will be others. Sturgeon tend to congregate in deep water. So if possible, stay close to the shoreline.

To learn more about sturgeon, go to myfwc.com.

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