American paddlefish receive major boost

Sam Brown poses with paddlefish caught and released recently at Lake Livingston, near where the restoration effort is underway; photo courtesy of East Texas Woods and Waters Foundation

The American paddlefish flourished throughout the Mississippi River basin for more than 300 million years, before being nearly wiped out as civilization spread throughout their range.

But this week the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service tweeted that “an ancient fish species is making a comeback,” and linked to its story about an ambitious effort to aid the recovery of paddlefish.

Biologist displays juvenile American paddlefish; photo courtesy of the USFWS

The USFWS reports that 50 hatchery-raised paddlefish were recently released into Caddo Lake on the Texas-Louisiana border, and on the Big Cypress Bayou River, on which the lake is formed.

Each fish is 18 months old and measures 2 to 3 feet, and each is fitted with a small transmitter that will allow scientists to monitor their movements.

If all goes well, the plankton-eating fish, which use their blade-like snouts as steering aids, will reach their full length of about 7 feet, and weights to about 200 pounds.

It’s an worthwhile project considering that American paddlefish, which have disappeared in many areas because of habitat destruction and the construction of dams, is the oldest surviving animal species in North America, even older than dinosaurs.

Its scientific name is Polyodon spatula. Its Greek and Latin words translate to “many teeth” and “spatula,” even though the American paddlefish has no teeth and swims with its mouth open to catch plankton.

Though it can reach seven feet, nearly one-third of its length is the blade-like bill. Paddlefish were once far more widespread, but have completely disappeared in many areas.

They’re a vulnerable species and considered threatened in Texas, where they are rarely found, and protected against fishing efforts.

The Paddlefish Experiment and Education Project is part of a larger project to enhance flows throughout vast Caddo Lake watershed.

American paddlefish image is courtesy of the USFWS

The 50 paddlefish were released in March and their progress is being monitored by USFWS biologists, but also by Texas schoolchildren, who have adopted individual fish and have given them names.

Twenty schools are involved and among the paddlefish names are Andre, Bobcat Swag, Calypso, Don the Fish, Griselda, Pebbles, and Polly Sprinkles.

The students follow the movements of their respective paddlefish via a website tracking map.

The enhanced flow regimes, thanks to an effort that involved multiple agencies and stakeholders, will be important if the paddlefish are going to survive, and their health will help determine the overall health of the watershed.

If scientists determine that the experiment is working, they will step up the recovery effort by releasing thousands of juvenile paddlefish in the hope of restoring “a viable population for the future.”

It’s an admirable effort, to be sure, considering the astonishing amount of time these fish roamed U.S. waterways.

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