A long-awaited project materialized at Knoxville's Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge as more than 2,500 lake sturgeon were released into the French Broad River.
Coordinated by the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, the US Fish & Wildlife Service and UT graduate students, the lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) were released into the French Broad River on Thursday.
Members of all agencies including UT students were present to help release the sturgeon, along with fifth graders from Knox County's Gap Creek Elementary School.
In preparation for the events last week, the Gap Creek youngsters have been raising a sturgeon of their own, appropriately named "Spike." The primitive lake sturgeon is evolutionarily ancient, with fossils dating back over 130 million years. With this in mind, the structure and features of these fascinating creatures are still a bit shocking to most individuals, illustrating why they're often referred to as "living fossils."
Records indicate that mature adult lake sturgeon can live up to 150 years and reach sizes of more than 300 pounds. Furthermore, most juveniles require more than a decade to reach sexual maturation, making the monitoring process of these individuals quite lengthy and the success rates sometimes difficult to determine. The young sturgeon released into the French Broad averaged less than 12 inches in length.
Scientists believe lake sturgeon flourished in the Tennessee River watershed for millennia. It was not until the 1900s with the onslaught of human impacts such as over harvest and bad management practices that these fish became extirpated, or regionally extinct. Currently, lake sturgeon are considered endangered in Tennessee, and must be released when caught by anglers.
Graduate students in forestry, wildlife and fisheries helped guide the demanding process of raising some 200 individuals for the release. The fish must be fed and their tanks cleaned multiple times daily, making it virtually a continuous undertaking.
"Sturgeon are time and labor-intensive to raise," said graduate student Dan Walker, who took care of the fish daily. "It was definitely rewarding after all that work to see them swim off into the river."
The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga also played an integral role in the raising of over 600 individuals. Bernie Kuhajda, an aquatic biologist for the Tennessee Aquarium, helped explain the significance of such an event.
"From a scientific point of view, it's important to reestablish the aquatic biodiversity that used to be here," Kuhajda said. "Lake sturgeon disappeared from the Tennessee River, and we're putting them back. But this project is so much more than just replacing lost aquatic biodiversity — it's getting the general public, and in this case elementary school children, excited about conservation."