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Watershed for recovering Gulf sturgeon

Fisheries scientist releasing a Gulf sturgeon after measurement and tagging.

The Gulf sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi) was listed as a threatened species in 1991. This anadromous species (migrating between freshwater to spawn and marine water to forage) is jointly managed by NMFS and FWS; generally NMFS leads efforts in the estuarine and marine waters and FWS leads in the rivers.

A Turning Point

Gulf sturgeon researchers and managers meet annually each fall, but the fall 2009 meeting was a turning point in Gulf sturgeon conservation. During the presentations of the species “5-year review” and population assessment, managers and researchers identified a disconnect between their conservation goal, recovery throughout the Gulf of Mexico, and the research being conducted on individual riverine populations. The group worked to identify a 5-year monitoring plan that would provide the data necessary for future stock assessments to assess abundance trends and survival.

Since 2009, the Gulf sturgeon community has worked together to standardize survey and sampling methodologies so data can be pooled. Collectively the data will allow for inter-basin comparison of population trends and an overall species population assessment. Each partner has contributed to the overall effort by attending workshops to standardize tagging protocols, contributing data to a centralized database, sharing personnel, and coordinating sampling efforts. NMFS and FWS have purchased tags and equipment, organized and hosted workshops, and developed and supported a centralized on-line database. This standardized sampling protocol was later adopted in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; using our methodologies and funds from the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, we investigated movement patterns of Gulf sturgeon in the marine environment.

Continuing Benefits

After 3 years we have completed the initial task of the 5-year monitoring program wherein we have tagged and released 300 Gulf sturgeon with acoustic tags. Receivers are strategically situated at the mouths of rivers and upstream to document presence and movement of individuals that will allow us to determine both mortality rates and migratory pathways. We are collecting information from those tags via the remote receivers for the next 5 years.

At this time, the preliminary results gathered in the first 3 years are being used by a graduate student at the University of Florida in a thesis estimating natural mortality rates of the Gulf sturgeon collectively and within riverine populations.This initial analysis will provide important feedback on the study design and data collection. We look forward to these new data and them informing Gulf sturgeon population estimates that will aid in the recovery of the species, both by assessing trends and identifying precarious life history stages. We anticipate a full stock assessment with all data collected during the 5-year monitoring program to be presented at our annual meeting in fall 2016.

Updated: November 22, 2013