All posts by Debbie Kay

Alabama Sturgeon – a Soap Opera Moment

Alabama Scientists Use e-DNA to Discover Signs of Sturgeon Presumed Extinct

Alabama Sturgeon by Debbie Kay

Alabama Scientists are having a real soap opera moment, as one of their indigenous species of fish, presumed extinct, may have been found alive.  The Alabama sturgeon is considered one of the rarest freshwater fish on the planet, and has not been seen alive since 2007.  However, scientists doing work in its home range of the Mobile Basin have now found evidence that it continues, elusively, to live in the area through recent environmental DNA sample collections.

About the Alabama Sturgeon

The Alabama sturgeon, Scaphirhynchus suttkusi, is a small, yellow-orange species of sturgeon that lives exclusively in the Mobile Basin of the Alabama River.  It grows to about 30 inches in size, and lives 12 to 20 years.  In 1993, the state and federal protection program for the once-populous Alabama sturgeon began.  This species had evaded identification until 1991, and were once believed to be the young of the more common gulf sturgeon. By the time the fish were shown to be genetically unique, their numbers had declined so much due to the impacts of several dams in the watershed that there was a question whether any effort at all could save them.  Since protection efforts were considered to be a large and expensive change for much of the river’s industries, there was a battle between the businesses and environmentalists whether to take protection measures at all.

Protection was difficult to verify, as only three individual sturgeon were actually captured and held in hand within ten years.  The last known fish, a male, was tagged in 2006 with a radio tracker, with the hopes that it would lead scientists to a larger breeding population.  Unfortunately, that did not happen before the transmitter died in 2007.

The Rediscovery

Scientists recently collected 130 environmental DNA samples along the length of the Alabama River and found that approximately 17 percent of the samples had Alabama sturgeon DNA.  This means that the fish were in the area within the past 8 to 40 days, based on the average rate of DNA breakdown in the area. This means the fish is present, but it has not been seen.

As these locations are narrowed down, scientists plan to do more extensive surveys on the areas that get continued “hits” during eDNA sampling.  Fish collection/viewing can be done via snorkeling, dewatering, or backpack electrofishing.  If they find fish in any number, this may be an opportunity There is currently a hatchery-assisted breeding plan for the Alabama sturgeon that sits on the law books if the state manages to locate and secure some breeding pairs of fish.  To locate a pair (or hopefully more than one) would allow an opportunity to begin adding fish to more areas, and to better study individuals to understand the specific environmental factors they need to thrive.  This can lead to smarter management decisions in the future to truly bring this elusive fish species its heroic return from the dead.

Use Fish WebCams for Better Fishing

How to Use Fish WebCams to Become a Better Fisherman

Use Fish WebCams By Debbie Kay

Fishcams are an incredibly fun way to discover local fish in their native habitat.  They can be found along manmade fish passages, in hatcheries, and along piers (like below the Seattle Aquarium).  The videos can be a calming backdrop in a room, a fun novelty to watch and even a way to learn more about fish behavior.  Knowledge like this allows you to test some theories and help you to become a better fisher as a result.  Here are some things to observe that can help up your fishing game: Continue reading Use Fish WebCams for Better Fishing

Hatcheries Stocking Alligator Gar to Combat Carp

Illinois Hatcheries Stocking Alligator Gar to Combat Carp by Debbie Kay

The state of Illinois has a monster carp problem.  What better way to fight a monster than with a bigger monster?  So goes the logic, as the state’s hatcheries gear up to begin stocking alligator gar in many of the state’s rivers that have invasive fish problems.  Though the fish are native to Illinois, they have not been seen in the state’s waters since 1966.  Their return is hoped not only to curb the growing carp population with one of the few native predators, but to return a major trophy fish to Illinois waters.

About Alligator Gar

Alligator gar are one of the most ancient species still living today, with fossil records of these fish dating back to over 100 million years ago.   They can grow up to ten feet long and weigh up to 300lbs.  From the 1930’s to the 1980’s, they were considered “trash fish” and a detriment to sport fishing.  They are known as stalking predators, and will target large fish, small mammals and waterfowl.  They were targeted for extermination in many waters of the US and Mexico during this period.  When better knowledge of the interaction of ecosystems came in the 80’s, the emphasis went from extermination to protection and reintroduction.  Today, many states have an alligator gar fishery.

Reintroduction into Illinois

Illinois has waters that run into two massive interstate watersheds.  Some waters run toward Lake Michigan and into the Great Lakes waterway, while others head toward the mighty Mississippi.  There is a large pool of federal funding money that has been set aside to deal with the scourge of Asian Carp as it quickly repopulates through the area.  The gar reintroduction program is using that funding to help deal with this issue.  As a bonus, hatcheries stocking alligator gar will serve as a large trophy fish that can bring state revenue through fish endorsement licenses and tourism dollars.

Will it Work?

The gar is not a complete solution to the carp problem.  Population-wise, the carp outnumber the gar by a massive amount.  The largest carp are too large to be swallowed by the narrow-throated gar.  Also, populations of gar will not breed until they reach sexual maturity at age 11, while carp begin reproducing at age 3.  This means that they can take a small portion of the population, but they will never be the main control mechanism for these fish.  However, after several years, once they have firmly reestablished their numbers, the gar can be a preventative measure in areas without Asian carp if smaller, younger fish try and expand their territory.  Instead, netting and fish kills seems to be the only way to keep this majorly invasive fish species at bay.

When Will Gar Reintroduction Begin?

The hatcheries stocking alligator gar program has been approved since 2010, but funding has only recently been secured.  Hatcheries are prepping to begin grow-out and release as early as next year.  From there, Illinois will need to decide how to handle fishing seasons for this once extinct species.

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How the Steelhead Gene Bank Program Works (part 3 of 3)

Steelhead Gene Bank by Debbie Kay

Gene Bank Streams in Washington State are the Nisqually and Elwha Rivers. They have been officially named to Washington’s new Steelhead Gene Bank program.  These streams will no longer take any stocked hatchery fish, and measures will be taken to remove hatchery fish and to better preserve the area for wild fish.  These two streams are just the beginning of a program designed to try and help these threatened fish to survive and replenish in the state’s Puget Lowlands.

Steelhead in Washington State

Steelhead are a native, sea-run subspecies of rainbow trout, or Oncorhynchus mykiss.  Steelhead are one of the species known to survive multiple spawns, unlike West Coast salmon.  They have two runs, a summer run and a winter run.  Summer runs are typically in the Puget Sound lowlands, while winter runs are closer to the Pacific Ocean.  The fish emerge from the gravel and rear in freshwater from two to four years, depending on the amount of food and cool water available.  The longer that the fish rear, the higher survival rate they tend to have. Returning steelhead spawn between 8 and 11 pounds, and they can grow to sizes up to 40lbs.

The Concern with Hatchery Steelhead

Rainbows are one of the original hatchery fish, with successful stocking programs dating back to the 1800’s.  This made a switch to steelhead a natural and logical choice. Local steelhead stocking programs are known to take the fish directly from a spawn, trying to preserve the in-stream gene bank. They have been successful in upping raw numbers in streams, but this has not slowed population decline for wild fish.  A 2009 study from Oregon State showed some of the problems with hatchery steelhead.  In the wild, a hatchery fish is not just unconditioned for life in the wild, it is actually genetically less likely to survive.  A fish born in the wild from two hatchery parents has only a 37% chance of survival compared to a wild fish.  A fish with one wild parent has only an 80% chance of survival.  This reduced survival rate was proven to pass on to the next generation, and was assumed to continue for several more generations as well.  For a fish that is struggling already due to habitat concerns, to put breeding fish into the system that are known to reduce the chance of survival for the population as a whole, while taking food resources from those who need it was considered to be contributing to the extinction of wild steelhead strains.

How the Steelhead Gene Bank Program Works

There are three designated areas in the Puget Sound lowlands that are designated for steelhead recovery plans, like the gene bank streams.  Within each, streams will be chosen where hatchery fish will no longer be added.  Fishing will be encouraged for hatchery fish with mandatory take, and release-only for wild fish.  No winter fishing (during the winter run) will be allowed.  The Nisqually and Elwha were chosen for the massive restoration efforts on behalf of both streams, including the dam removal in the Elwha river, and the moratorium on hatchery steelhead in the Nisqually dating back to 1982.  More streams will be given the Steelhead Gene Bank classification moving forward.

See Part One and Part Two

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Five Reasons Steelhead Numbers Dwindling (part 2 of 3)


Steelhead Numbers Dwindling By Debbie Kay

The sea-run rainbow trout known as the steelhead has a problem.  Steelhead numbers dwindling though declines have slowed their rate, the numbers continue to slip.  There are half a dozen different unique steelhead populations. Steelhead numbers dwindling, and despite the things that are being done to save their cousins the salmon, none of them seem to be working well for these native fish.   Steelhead populations declines have slowed their rate, but numbers continue to slip.  There are half a dozen different unique steelhead populations that are gaining attention for their threatened status, and NOAA is in the process of developing recovery plans for many of these regions.  Though some of the individual regions will have unique reasons for population declines, there are also a number of reasons that all regions have in common.  Here is a look at five top reasons that steelhead are disappearing:


Many of the most threatened steelhead populations are on waterways with one or more dams.  Fish passage designs are not built into older dams, and only capture a portion of the population in newer dams. Dammed waters often cut off hundreds of miles of breeding grounds for large populations of anadromous fish, and leave thousands to millions of fish trying to get upstream to spawn without success.


Drought years are rough on fish who count on headwater streams for their rearing grounds.  Low water reduces the available area for fish to live, hurts streamside plants which provide food through their leaf litter and reduces available stream insects.  This can cause a drop in the number of fish returning to sea after their time in fresh water.

Climate Change

Increased water temperatures, drought cycles, disappearing snowpack from snow-fed streams and ocean acidification all play a toll on these fish in different ways.  Steelhead need cool water because they require high levels of oxygen to survive, and water loses oxygen as it is heated.  Ocean acidification can prevent the survival of plankton because it can dissolve their shells.  This is the base food for all ocean life, and can cause drastic drops in population up the entire food chain.

Land Use Choices

Shade, clear water without sedimentation and access to leafy vegetation are all needed for steelhead populations to thrive.  However, urban and residential development, timber harvest and agricultural practices that are done too close to streams can take a large toll on the in-stream fish habitat.  Buffers are prescribed for each of the land use types, but many believe that they are currently not sufficient to protect steelhead, particularly with some of the loopholes in the rules that exist.  In addition, there is a lot of unpermitted harvest of streamside vegetation and in-stream modifications with heavy equipment that can cause damage to fish habitat by well-meaning but uninformed landowners.


Hatcheries have long been the main solution proposed for steelhead and salmon populations.  While they have made it possible to have a continued recreational (and sometimes commercial) population of salmon and steelhead, the genetics of a hatchery group are significantly less varied than their fully wild counterparts.  In the case of steelhead, the genes of hatchery fish appear to be somewhat compromised, as they show a reduced rate of survival even one generation after being raised in a hatchery.   As this is becoming better understood, hatchery steelhead are being re-thought as a recovery technique, and some stocked steelhead are genetically modified to be triploid or otherwise sterile, to avoid depressing the wild populations.

NOAA’s recovery plans, to be successful, will need to address all of these puzzle pieces in the steelhead numbers dwindling conundrum.  As they continue to move forward with recommendations, the help of land use and fishing groups have become a very important part in helping to bring this popular game fish back to the West Coast streams.

See Part One and Part Three


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