Trotlines catch every bottom-feeding fish imaginable in the Missouri River: channel catfish, freshwater drum, shovelnose sturgeon. Even the occasional blue sucker. But this boat’s crew of biologists and volunteers seek one rarity—the endangered pallid sturgeon.
Watching the line of hooks rise from the water, Dave Crane spots the prize. “Pallid!” he shouts, excitedly, as thick and bony cartilage plates breach the river’s surface.
He and three friends work in unison to pull the 200-foot line on board. Crane carefully removes the pallid sturgeon from a hook; then he passes the precious specimen to a Game & Parks staffer to take its measurements, weigh the fish on a digital scale, and check for hatchery-implanted tags.
“Looks like a shipper,” says fishery biologist Dane Pauley, as the sturgeon goes into a water tank on the boat. Pauley is one of four Game & Parks crew leaders checking trotlines between the Plattsmouth and Nebraska City boat ramps on April 9, 2017, during the annual pallid sturgeon recovery effort known as Broodstock.
A “shipper” (i.e., slang for any sexually mature pallid sturgeon that is not hatchery-raised or has not been previously captured) is a sturgeon that the Game & Parks staff will send to a regional hatchery to ensure that its genetic stock is preserved and repopulated in the river ecosystem.
“I’ve been volunteering with Broodstock every year since 2009,” says Crane, a biologist with the Army Corps of Engineers. “As someone who works on planning and constructing Missouri River habitat restoration projects for a living, it’s a real treat getting hands-on with the fish and seeing firsthand the kind of biological response we’re having. My fieldwork doesn’t typically involve fish; I love getting out on the river like this.”
Broodstock collection—a regional conservation effort—is part of a larger, nationwide pallid sturgeon recovery initiative funded by the Army Corps of Engineers. Local participants include regional and federal stakeholders: Nebraska Game & Parks, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, volunteers from various state agencies, university biology professors, and students (along with their friends and family).
It’s not every day you come face-to-face with one of the American interior’s most endangered species. If you have the opportunity, be prepared to pucker up. Posing for a photo with a pallid sturgeon—and giving the fish a smoocheroo—has become a tradition on the Game & Parks’ boats.
“I’ve probably kissed a sturgeon at least three or four times. Only when we get a bigger one,” says Tim Shew, one of several friends that Crane has introduced to volunteering with Broodstock. “What has been really cool is that we have seen the effect of the program. There are a lot more and bigger pallids than when I started six years ago. Also more wild born. We never saw those for the first couple years.”
After checking 10 trotlines attached to buoys along the river, the boat crew has captured two shippers, and they caught-and-released countless non-targeted rough fish and hatchery-raised pallid sturgeon. When the boat stops on the side of the river for a sack lunch, it’s almost time to re-bait worms on 400 hooks to be replaced in the river for the next day’s crews.
By the end of the day, volunteers will have a dozen photos of themselves kissing a variety of fish—not just pallid sturgeon. Game & Parks staff record data on every fish pulled out of the water; it has become a valuable data set not only on the endangered species, but the entire Missouri River fishery.
Shipper sturgeons are transported via Game & Parks trucks (with water tanks), heading north to Gavin’s Point Fish Hatchery. After spawning in captivity, the adult fish will return to the river. Their offspring will remain in the tanks until the following spring when the space is needed for the next year’s broodstock.
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, pallid sturgeon are “bottom-dwelling, slow-growing fish that feed primarily on small fish and immature aquatic insects. This species of sturgeon is seldom seen and is one of the least understood fish in the Missouri and Mississippi River drainages.”
Pallid sturgeon are strange-looking creatures with bony back plates, skeletal cartilage rather than bones (common among ancient fish), a reptilian-like tail, and a pointy snout (that is more narrow than its close relative, the shovelnose sturgeon). They have been documented living longer than 60 years and weighing more than 80 pounds. As an endangered fish, they are also illegal to catch and possess (unless you are participating in Broodstock or a similar government-sanctioned recovery effort).
Their fossils date back to the days of dinosaurs, and the fish have likely been swimming the Missouri River as far back as the river has existed. But in the modern era—following rampant dam construction and the Army Corps of Engineers’ channelization of the river for shipping and flood control in the mid-20th century—the pallid sturgeon population collapsed.
Kirk Steffensen is the coordinator of the Broodstock effort on Nebraska’s stretch of the Missouri River. A fisheries biologist with the Nebraska Game & Parks, he has managed regional pallid sturgeon recovery efforts since 2002.
“Before the river was highly engineered and managed, that spring pulse of water [from upstream snowmelt] usually cued sturgeon to make their migration run to the spawning grounds,” Steffensen says. “Now that the river is so regulated and managed, they don’t get that pulse anymore.”
The fish still make spawning runs. They just aren’t very successful. Dams block their migration, and mankind’s reshaping of the river has degraded remaining spawning habitats.
Seeking to reverse the species collapse, the government listed pallid sturgeon as a federal endangered species in 1990. A recovery plan went into effect soon after.
“Since their populations were so low and diminished,” Steffensen says, “it was decided that we need to supplement the population through capturing wild fish in the river, transporting them to a hatchery facility and spawning them, and then rearing their progeny up to a bigger size—so that when we stock them back in the river, they have a higher rate of survival.”
Starting in 1992, pallid sturgeon stocking began from local populations supplemented by fish from upstream (sourced from the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers near the Montana-North Dakota border). But it wasn’t until spring 2002 that Steffensen says Nebraska Game & Parks ramped up its pallid sturgeon stocking efforts. That lasted until scientists realized “that, genetically, fish in the upper basin are just slightly different than down in our reach of the river into the middle Mississippi River,” he says.
A 2007 federal moratorium on stocking upper basin fish in the lower Missouri followed. Suddenly, downstream recovery efforts faced heightened pressure to gather all the pallid sturgeon needed to stock lower stretches of the river from local fish.
“That’s when this whole thing developed of bringing in volunteers to maximize our efforts,” Steffensen says. “So we began fishing these local fish and shipping them to the area hatcheries so they could spawn them in their facilities and maintain our stocking program in this lower reach of the Missouri River.”
Game & Parks boats monitor pallid sturgeon in the Missouri nine months out of the year, but it is only during the 11 days of Broodstock that they will capture the fish to send to hatcheries. It is also only during this time when volunteers can get in on the action. Broodstock normally takes place in late April, but the 2018 dates were not confirmed when this March/April edition of Omaha Magazine went to press.
There’s a four-person volunteer limit per boat. And the slots fill up quick. Steffensen estimates that the weekend volunteering spots are usually snapped up within an hour or two of his initial call for volunteers via e-mail.
In 2017, they had 167 volunteers—many of whom worked two or three days. More than 700 individuals have volunteered with Broodstock since they began accepting volunteer participants in 2008.
“We go rain or shine,” Steffensen says. “Back in ’09, we had to cancel one day because we had a snowstorm come in. Otherwise we endure rain, wind, temperatures. After we set the gear one afternoon, we have to get it out of the water the next morning so we don’t harm any fish. We operate under endangered species handling protocol, and we are limited to having these trotlines in the water for only 24 hours.”
They operate four or five boats each day to check approximately 10 trotlines per boat. Each line, connected to a buoy in the river, has about 40 hooks baited with worms.
With four or five boats in the water each day, crews are running 17,600-22,000 hooks during the brief 11-day window of Broodstock. Steffensen says they select the program’s date range a month or two in advance to anticipate when pallid sturgeon will make their spring migration to spawn.
“It’s really a unique effort that we do here. You always hear about endangered species: Don’t approach them; don’t touch them; they are for observation only. But that’s birds and mammals, where you can look at them with spotting scope and binoculars. With fish, you have to pull them out of the water to tag, and you actually handle them. We get a lot of that message from volunteers—that this is awesome,” Steffensen says, adding that the stocking effort would not be possible at its current level without the outpouring of volunteer support.
Since 1992, Game & Parks has introduced approximately 177,000 hatchery-reared pallid sturgeon. More than 94,000 of those hatchery fish were introduced through the Broodstock program that began in 2008.
Although the fish remains listed as endangered at the state and federal level, Steffensen is cautiously optimistic: “Overall, our catch suggests that the wild fish who were naturally spawned and lived in the river their whole life appear stable.”
Due to high demand, the opportunity to participate in Broodstock is not advertised. Anyone wishing to volunteer can request to be included in the email notice by contacting fisheries biologist Kirk Steffensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.