(WALA) – Boaters on the Choctawhatchee River now through the end of summer are urged to go slow and be ready to react, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The reason is a growing Gulf sturgeon population and their habit of leaping out of the water at the most inopportune times.
About a year ago, June 22, to be exact, an 8-year-old Youngstown boy was seriously injured in the family fishing boat when a leaping sturgeon struck him in the head. The boy spent almost two weeks in a Pensacola hospital. Almost every year there are reports of near-collisions on the Choctawhatchee and several other northwest Florida rivers.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) does extensive work with Gulf sturgeon in northwest Florida rivers. It estimates the sturgeon population on the Choctawhatchee is 3,500 and in the nearby Apalachicola River, close to 1,000. The Yellow River has an estimated 1,000 fish. Fewer than 500 are found in the Escambia River. The Suwannee River has the most sturgeon, with a population of 10,000-14,000 fish.
Frank Parauka, a veteran FWS fisheries scientist, said there are two schools of thought why sturgeon leap from the water.
“Sound travels quite a distance in the water, and some scientists believe their jumping is a form of communication with other fish. Others believe sturgeon inflate their air bladder when they leap. The bottom line is we don’t know for sure.”
Signs are posted at a number of boat ramps on the Choctawhatchee informing people that sturgeon are in the river and may leap out of the water unexpectedly.
Parauka said sturgeon spend the summer months resting in the Florida Panhandle rivers. Sometime in the fall all the sturgeon migrate south to the bays and Gulf, where they spend the winter.
Gulf sturgeon are protected under both state and federal laws and cannot be harvested.
To report sturgeon collisions, call 888-404-3922 (FWCC). For more information about Gulf sturgeon, go to MyFWC.com/Research and click on “Saltwater” and then “Sturgeon.”