Students Release First Class of Lake Sturgeon Raised at Tennessee Aquarium's New Science Center

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Chattanooga, Tenn. (Oct. 17, 2017) – In October 2016, the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute opened a brand new freshwater science center on the banks of the Tennessee River. On Monday, conservationists celebrated a major milestone in reintroducing the first Lake Sturgeon raised at the new facility into their native waterway.

With the help of students from Gap Creek Elementary School in Knoxville, Tenn., Aquarium biologists released about 700 juvenile Lake Sturgeon at Seven Island State Birding Park just a few miles east of the Tennessee River’s headwaters.

Lining up on a boat ramp leading down to the French Broad River, the students were handed nets laden with Lake Sturgeon. After escorting the fish to the river’s edge, the students then gently deposited them in the current.

“This is something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives,” says Shawna Mitchell, the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute’s science coordinator. “A lot of kids don’t get exposed to the outdoors and don’t know what kinds of animals and plants are out there, so exposing them to the natural world at a young age is really beneficial to them.”

These fish join another 700 Chattanooga-raised Lake Sturgeon that were added to the river in September. Since the Aquarium and its partners began propagation efforts in 2000, more than 200,000 Lake Sturgeon have returned to the Tennessee River.

Releases such as this represent new chapters in the Lake Sturgeon’s ongoing conservation success story.

In the 1970s, these long-lived, dinosaur-like fish were pushed to the brink of extinction by a combination of factors, including commercial fishing, poor water quality and the introduction of dams along their migration routes. Thanks to propagation efforts, a dam improvement program implemented by TVA and legislation reducing water pollution and making it illegal to catch Lake Sturgeon in Tennessee, the fish has been on the rebound.

On Oct. 18, 1972, the passage of the Clean Water Act represented a landmark moment in the pursuit of “swimmable, fishable, drinkable” water throughout the United States. On the eve of its 45th anniversary, the act’s legacy can be seen in the Lake Sturgeon’s resurgence in the Tennessee River, where poor water quality once contributed to the species’ decline.

“Our water in much cleaner due the Clean Water Act of 1972,” says Dr. Bernie Kuhajda, the manager of science programs at the conservation institute. “This prehistoric fish was missing for decades from the Tennessee River, and its return replaces a brick in the foundation of the aquatic ecosystem that helps give us relatively clean fresh water.”

Upon arriving at the Conservation Institute in May, the juvenile Lake Sturgeon were 30 days old and measured just an inch long. Fed on a steady diet of bloodworms, however, they grew tremendously over the summer. By the time they were eased into the river, the little sturgeon measured between four and six inches long.

While they did all that growing, their living conditions were far nicer than those of the sturgeon raised before them, Mitchell says.

“Now, we have this brand new facility after years of raising fish in a warehouse setting,” she laughs. “To have a climate-controlled room with floor drains and all these nice amenities has been a big help. These guys are much more spoiled than their previous brothers and sisters and cousins.”

For more information on Lake Sturgeon and the Aquarium’s propagation efforts to restore them to their native range, visit http://www.tnaqua.org/our-animals/lake-sturgeon.

About Lake Sturgeon
• Size: Up to 9 feet and 276 pounds (based on historic records)
• Range: St. Lawrence-Great Lakes, Hudson Bay and the Mississippi River basins
• Habitat: Bottom of lakes and large rivers, occasionally entering brackish waters
• Diet: Crustaceans, worms and mollusks
• Weight:
• Lifespan: Up to 152 years
• Sexual maturity: After 15-20 years (males) or 22-33 years (females)
• Average migration distance: 62 miles