Nine people were injured in accidental collisions with jumping sturgeon during 2007. A fatal incident occurred after a sturgeon jumped in front of a boat. The boat operator swerved abruptly to avoid a collision, causing two people to be ejected into the water, with one of the men drowning.
"We certainly don't want a repeat of last year," said Major Lee Beach, regional law enforcement commander for FWC's North Central Region, based in Lake City. "Just one person getting hurt is too many. We want people to be aware that the sturgeon are returning, and the risk of injury to boaters does exist."
In 2006, FWC officials began working on a public awareness campaign to alert boaters to the risks of jumping sturgeon.
A sturgeon jumps out of the Suwannee River (Photo courtesy Swim at Your Own Risk)
"We have posted signs at each boat ramp along the Suwannee, explaining the risk of impacts with these fish," Beach said. "We will be checking those boat ramps this month to ensure all the signs are still in place."
The best course of action for avoiding a collision is to slow down, sturgeon experts advise.
"We recommend boaters reduce their speed to reduce the risk of impact and to give people more time to react if they do encounter a jumping sturgeon," Beach said. "The FWC also recommends that all boaters wear their life jackets."
Sturgeon are a protected species and may not be harvested.
"Sturgeon are protected by state and federal law, just like bald eagles, panthers and sea turtles," Beach said.
The Suwannee River appears to support the largest viable population of Gulf sturgeon. Biologists estimate the annual population at 6,500 to 7,500 fish, each averaging approximately 40 pounds. Adult fish spend eight to nine months each year in the river spawning and three to four of the coolest months in Gulf waters. Sturgeon tend to congregate in deeper and cooler waters with moderate currents and sand and rocky bottoms.
Biologists are unsure why sturgeon jump.
"Scientists are still attempting to figure that out," said Dr. Jeffrey Wilcox of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "The latest theories include that the fish jump to communicate, or it may be a dominance display. No rules require all jumps to mean the same thing.
"I have seen these collisions referred to as ‘attacks,' Wilcox said. "However, these fish are in no way 'attacking' when they jump. They are simply doing what they have been doing for millions of years … jumping. They aren't targeting the boaters."
However, Gulf sturgeon can get quite big, exceeding seven feet and 170 pounds.
"They have five rows of rock-hard 'scutes' along their sides, back and belly. When sturgeon and boaters collide, the results can be devastating," Wilcox said.
To report sturgeon collisions, call 1-888-404-FWCC (3922).
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.