Thanks to a collaborative conservation effort, biologists from the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI), Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) reintroduced 2,600 lake sturgeons into the species’ native habitat on Thursday, 1 November.
The reintroduction took place near Knoxville at the Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge. This location on the French Broad River was identified as favorable habitat for this freshwater fish species, which has become endangered due to overfishing and environmental challenges, including pollution.
Students from a 5th grade class at Gap Creek Elementary near Knoxville are also very excited to help with the reintroduction of these lake sturgeons (Acipenser fulvescens). Since the beginning of the school year, they have been caring for “Spike,” a juvenile lake sturgeon. Each day, the Gap Creek students recorded data about the fish, including feedings, water temperature, pH, ammonia levels, length and behavioral observations. Their role in these hands-on activities, as well as the release, is designed to increase the students’ understanding of freshwater conservation. They also discover how the health of the river and human health are connected.
The Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (the conservation and research arm of the Tennessee Aquarium) and its partners have reintroduced more than 125,000 lake sturgeons to the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers since 1998. The long-term goal of this “Saving the Sturgeon” program is to restore a self-sustaining population of lake sturgeon in Tennessee. So far, this effort has proven to be very successful with anglers reporting these fish downstream in Alabama and Kentucky. Biologists have also been encouraged by recent surveys to monitor the population between Knoxville and Chattanooga.
Of this recent “year class” of lake sturgeons that were released, 600 of them came to the Tennessee Aquarium as babies that averaged less than one inch in length. They have been growing to a releasable size of approximately five inches, with some already reaching one foot in length. These impressive fish are true river giants and can eventually grow to more than eight feet in length! Lake sturgeons have also been known to live nearly 150 years, feeding mainly on bottom-dwelling crayfish, mussels, aquatic insect larvae and small fishes.
The working partners of this successful “Saving the Sturgeon” program are:
Conservation Fisheries, Inc.
Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute
Tennessee Tech University
Tennessee Valley Authority
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
University of Tennessee Knoxville
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
U.S. Geological Survey
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
World Wildlife Fund
Contributing writer: Thom Benson, Communications Manager, Tennessee Aquarium