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Celebrating Ten Years of Saving the Sturgeon

5/13/2010 3:28:48 PM

Calvin Donaldson Elementary students help Aquarium staff release lake sturgeon.

Above: Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy students look on as TNACI research associate Lee Friedlander and TNACI director Dr. Anna George prepare to release a lake sturgeon into the Tennessee River.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                    Contact: Thom Benson 423-785-3007
Chattanooga Release Celebrates Ten Years of “Saving the Sturgeon”
Conservation Collaboration Reaches Many Milestones

Chattanooga, Tenn. (May 13, 2010) – Students from Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy had a rare opportunity to help celebrate a conservation milestone in Downtown Chattanooga. The fifth graders helped the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, TNACI, and a group of working partners release 25 lake sturgeon into the Tennessee River “We wanted to give these students the chance to see and touch these animals before they were reintroduced,” said TNACI’s director, Dr. Anna George. “It’s vital that they understand that a species like the lake sturgeon is an important part of a healthy environment.”

The CDESA students will be able to point to the river and tell people, “I helped put some big fish out there that could be here 100 years from now.” Lake sturgeon have been known to live more than a century, grow to eight feet in length and weigh up to 300 pounds, making the species one of the largest to live in the Tennessee River. Unfortunately, large fish such as lake sturgeon grow slowly and take years to reproduce, making them vulnerable to overfishing and habitat changes. “Lake sturgeon were extirpated, or made extinct, in the Tennessee portion of their historic range,” said Jason Henegar, river and streams program coordinator for Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, TWRA. “Because of the sturgeon’s long life span, they are very vulnerable to over harvest, habitat changes, and decreases in water quality. As a result, these animals disappeared from Tennessee waters during the 1960s.”

These dinosaur-looking fish got a big boost when the Tennessee Aquarium, TWRA, TVA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, World Wildlife Fund and others joined forces to reintroduce lake sturgeon for the first time in 2000. “In the early 1990s, TVA began changing the operations of some of their dams which boosted oxygen levels in the river,” said Dr. George. “This combined with instituting minimum water flow really improved the habitat below the dams for all fish, providing conditions that would support a lake sturgeon recovery program.”                                                                   

Over the past ten years, 90,000 lake sturgeon have been reintroduced in the French Broad River near the headwaters of the Tennessee River. The program was deemed so successful that TWRA and TNACI biologists have started a pilot program to reintroduce lake sturgeon to the Cumberland River near Nashville. “With another decade of hard work, we hope to see a strong sturgeon population back in Tennessee’s two main rivers,” said Dr. George.

Lake sturgeon are still an endangered species in Tennessee and must be immediately released if caught. But TWRA seeks out, and has received, valuable lake sturgeon reports from fisherman who accidentally hook the fish. These have included a few reports from as far downstream as Kentucky Lake, some 550 miles away from the release point near Knoxville. “This tells us that not only is the Saving the Sturgeon program successful, the reports let us know that the overall health of the river is in pretty good shape since the sturgeon are able to thrive throughout such a long stretch of river,” said Dr. George.

Visitors are encouraged to learn more about the reintroduction program while visiting the lake sturgeon touch tank at the Tennessee Aquarium. And according to Dr. George, educational outreach opportunities are an important part of any conservation effort. “It’s always a pleasure seeing people inside the Aquarium connecting with the animals we’re working so hard to protect. But it’s even more gratifying when a school group such as Calvin Donaldson gets to join us in the field and learn conservation first-hand.”

Did you know?
Lake Sturgeon are endangered in the state of Tennessee, so it is illegal to keep them.  If you do catch one, please be careful with the fish—avoid holding them by their tail and remember that they need to be in the water to breathe!  Fishermen can report a sturgeon by calling the toll-free number for their TWRA regional office, or the Fisheries Management Division at 615-781-6575.  Fisherman who call in with some basic information (estimated weight and length, date of catch and location), will get a Lake Sturgeon Certificate of Appreciation.

“Saving the Sturgeon” Working Partners:
Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute
Tennessee Tech University
Tennessee Valley Authority
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
University of Tennessee Knoxville
US Fish and Wildlife Service
US Geological Survey
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
World Wildlife Fund

Official Sponsor of Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Programs:
Volkswagen Group of America, Chattanooga Operations

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