TVA Gives Native Fish a Boost in Region’s Rivers
Sharp-finned like a shark. Ridged like an alligator. Sucker-mouthed and whiskered like a catfish.
This is the lake sturgeon, a giant, Jurassic-era descendant that all but died out from the Valley region in the 1960s.
“These fish disappeared in the Tennessee Valley before we knew much about them,” Dave Matthews, Tennessee Valley Authority aquatic zoologist, said. They’re so rare that they’re listed as endangered in Tennessee, and they’re imperiled in 18 other states.
But over the years, Matthews has gotten to know this fish quite well.
Since 2000, he and other biologists have led large-scale, multi-agency efforts to restore lake sturgeon to area waterways.
And a big part of this work has involved educational outreach.
This includes Sturgeonfest, an annual public fish release at Seven Islands State Birding Park in east Tennessee. Since its beginning, TVA has been a proud presenting sponsor along with host organization Friends of Seven Islands.
Here, on a recent fall morning, groups of children crowded along the banks of the French Broad River, cupping their hands under netted, wiggly baby sturgeon.
Some kids named their fierce-looking fish.
Sturgis. Olivia. Peyton Manning. Ophelia. Navy. Lily. Unicorn.
Others waved goodbye.
With just slight ripples, 1,000 of these rare sturgeon – spawned in Wisconsin, raised at a hatchery in Georgia and driven to Tennessee – slipped into the depths.
The hope is that they’ll grow, migrate, breed and thrive without human help.
“If we do end up with a self-regulating population, then that’s really special,” Lyn Williams, TVA fisheries and aquatic monitoring manager, said. “That’s what this program is about.”
A Prehistoric Story
Sturgeon were once found worldwide in salt water and freshwater lakes, seas and rivers, but their populations plummeted from multiple threats, including overfishing, water pollution and changes to habitat and shorelines.
Lake sturgeon are one of three native sturgeon in Tennessee. They can grow up to 8 feet long and weigh as much as 300 pounds.
They’re found in the deepest waters, with females living up to 150 years.
They feed in the deep, using four thick whiskers to feel along the silty bottom, vacuuming up mouthfuls of tiny river insects, mussels, crustaceans and fish. Instead of using teeth to munch prey, they use a throat plate to crush it.
They migrate long distances to feed and breed, spawning in shallower, sunnier spots near shore.
Researchers have learned this based on data from the University of Tennessee, Justin Wolbert, TVA fisheries biologist, said.
“They swim miles and miles and miles every day,” Wolbert said.
Given their size, lifespan and migratory habits, they’re particularly vulnerable to changes in habitat. Years of alterations to their home rivers meant lake sturgeon couldn’t move to lay eggs.
“A male takes 15 years to be able to spawn and a female takes 20 to 25 years,” Wolbert said. That’s based on data from the Wisconsin population. “And they only reproduce every four years or so, so it’s easy to overfish them and wipe out a population.”
Thanks to coordinated efforts, this behemoth fish is making a comeback.
For 20 years, TVA and its partners have worked toward large-scale sturgeon releases all along the Tennessee River, in cooperation with the Southeastern Lake Sturgeon Working Group.
Restoration means a lot of moving parts.
Recovery focuses on three areas: habitat, population and life cycle restoration.
TVA now manages Tennessee River dams and reservoirs more like naturally flowing rivers, with steady, slowly changing water levels. This helps restore habitat.
“We’re operating our dams differently now,” Matthews said. “In fact, this shift caused us to believe that a large-scale reintroduction effort could work.”
Today, the river system’s fish can travel long distances to lay eggs and breed.
“That’s quite a testament to the success of TVA’s Natural Resource management and reservoir release improvements,” Matthews said.
Quality and Quantity
Hatcheries such as the Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery in Georgia raise sturgeon to release into rivers.
“There’s a saying of not keeping all your eggs in one basket, and that’s certainly true for sturgeon,” Matthews said. “The eggs go to several different hatcheries. There are about 1,000 6-inch fish there at Warm Springs.”
To restore populations, Tennessee and other states have banned commercial sturgeon fishing. Recreational anglers must release any sturgeon they catch.
To ensure healthy life cycles, scientists monitor water quality and dissolved oxygen. High-quality water means more eggs can survive.
While it’s certainly a challenge to monitor 600 miles of river, biologists catch sturgeon year after year to map, monitor and tag them. This work provides helpful insights on where the creature is gliding deep below.
With these recovery efforts now in their third decade, researchers hope the fish are breeding and laying eggs on their own.
“We’re seeing fish that we stocked in 2004,” Matthews said. “We’re seeing a lot of age class structure, which leads me to believe that a lot of fish are making it and doing well.”
Small Acts, Big Impact
Sturgeonfest fits into the recovery mix perfectly. Baby sturgeon, slipped into the river each year, carry a distinctive scute pattern – their bony plates – based on their release date.
Warm Springs Fish Hatchery biologist Josh Simmons pointed this out at Sturgeonfest. He reached into a tank and gently flipped a sturgeon so it faced the river, then counted the scutes starting from the pointed nose.
“This one has the scute removed on the driver’s side,” he said. “One, two, three, four, five – right there.”
Scientists can recognize these signs and scan fish tags to record vital information.
Across the Valley region, other organizations host public lake sturgeon releases. The Tennessee Aquarium, a TVA partner, this year invited the public to release thousands near Chattanooga.
It gives children and families a unique opportunity to learn about this remarkable creature while participating in its recovery.
Holding a slick fish in hand, one person can become the sturgeon’s ally for years to come.
At this year’s Sturgeonfest, more than 900 people signed up to release sturgeon into the wild, according to Friends of Seven Islands officials.
“My 4-year-old is going to release a 6-inch sturgeon. Her great grandkids can be playing in the French Broad and touch a fish that she released,” Williams said.
Williams’ daughter ended up releasing two fish, which she named Cupcake and Cake.
“Small acts of conservation can have impacts that last forever,” Williams said.
“It just takes a little act,” he said.
And those little acts add up to big changes.
“This is a good display of our commitment to environmental stewardship and biodiversity,” TVA Chief Operating Officer Don Moul said. He attended the event with his family. “It’s an immersive experience for kids to be able to reintroduce the fish into the river.
“Plus, I just want to kiss a fish. How often do you get to kiss a sturgeon? They’ve been around since the dinosaurs.”
Learn more about TVA’s land and habitat stewardship at the Natural Resource Plan page.