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April 19, 2012

Endangering Species

Boaters are warned to watch out for leaping sturgeon in the Suwannee

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has issued a seasonal warning to boaters on the Suwannee River: Watch out for leaping sturgeon.

Every year the Suwannee sees a migration of surgeon, which average 40 pounds, though fish up to 200 are not uncommon. A particular behavior of sturgeon in the river is to leap into the air. Biologists don't know why they leap, but  their jumps often carry them into the path of oncoming boats. Last year 11 boaters had run-ins with leaping sturgeon and six boaters were injured when they slammed into airborne fish.

“Last season, we had quite a few people hurt, some seriously,” said Maj. Roy Brown, regional law enforcement commander for the FWC’s North Central Region, based in Lake City. “Just one person getting hurt is too many. We want people to be aware the Gulf sturgeon are returning to the Suwannee, and the risk of injury to boaters does exist.”

Sturgeon are a well-armored fish, with five rows of hard scutes along their sides, back and belly. When sturgeon and boaters collide, sturgeon are likely to come out ahead.

In 2006 FWC officials began a public awareness campaign alerting boaters on the river to the risks posed by jumping sturgeon. Signs have been posted at boat ramps warning of the dangers, and officers will be devoting water patrol time to the Suwannee through summer, and for the duration of the eight to nine months the fish are in the river, before they return to the Gulf, driven by the onset of colder water temperatures. Boaters are urged to slow down and allow themselves enough time to react and avoid a collision should they encounter leaping fish. The FWC also stresses the importance of boaters wearing life jackets when underway.

Biologists are unsure why sturgeon jump. Theories include that the fish jump to communicate or as a dominance display.

“I have seen these collisions referred to as ‘attacks.’ However, these fish are in no way attacking when they jump. They are simply doing what they have been doing for millions of years: jumping. They aren’t targeting the boaters,” Brown said.

The Suwannee River appears to support the largest viable population of Gulf sturgeon. Biologists estimate the annual population at 10,000-14,000 fish.

State and federal laws protect sturgeon, just like bald eagles, panthers and sea turtles. It is illegal to harvest Gulf sturgeon.

To report sturgeon collisions, call 888-404-FWCC (3922).