Hatchery issues force WV DNR to halt paddlefish, sturgeon stockings

JOHN McCOY | Gazette-Mail
West Virginia fisheries officials won’t be stocking paddlefish for a while due to a water shortage at the Division of Natural Resources’ Palestine Fish Hatchery. Biologists hope to use the halt in the stockings to determine whether a self-sustaining population has been established.
Photo courtesy Nate Tessler
An inability to raise shovelnose sturgeon in West Virginia’s hatcheries forced DNR officials to abandon the agency’s reintroduction effort.

“Going primitive” isn’t easy.

State fisheries officials have suspended West Virginia’s effort to reestablish populations of two ancient, primitive fish species in state waters. Hatchery problems put on hold the Division of Natural Resources’ paddlefish reintroduction program; the difficulty and expense of obtaining and raising shovelnose sturgeon forced agency officials to abandon its attempt to re-establish that species.

A leak in the reservoir at the DNR’s Palestine Fish hatchery has forced hatchery workers to try to raise fish with a fraction of the water they ordinarily use. Katie Zipfel, a fisheries biologist for the agency, said the tanks used to raise paddlefish require a lot of water. Until the reservoir gets repaired, devoting that much water to paddlefish isn’t possible.

Zipfel said the temporary break in the stockings might actually be a blessing in disguise.

“I’m thinking this might be a good opportunity for me to not stock them for 5 or 6 years and to run some surveys to see how they’re doing,” she said. “Hopefully we are getting along toward getting self-sustaining populations.”

The term “self-sustaining populations” is biologist-speak for populations that spawn naturally and don’t require hatchery support. That was DNR officials’ goal in 1992 when they began reintroducing paddlefish into the state’s waters.

The odd-looking fish never became completely extinct in West Virginia, but they came close. Between the 1940s and early 1970s, water pollution nearly wiped them out. After the Clean Water Act passed in 1970, the state’s rivers gradually cleared up. By the late 1980s, the Ohio, Kanawha and Monongahela rivers were once again able to sustain the growth of zooplankton, the microscopic organisms paddlefish feed upon.

Almost every year since 1992, DNR workers raised a few thousand small paddlefish at the agency’s Palestine Fish Hatchery and stocked them in the state’s largest rivers. Zipfel said she and her fellow biologists now routinely catch paddlefish in the gill nets they set to capture Asian carp.

“We’re seeing more and more 3-foot-long juvenile paddlefish,” she said. “Those fish are probably 5 or 6 years old. We haven’t done a full-scale population estimate on paddlefish yet, and I’m curious to see what’s in the river.”

She said all the paddlefish she’s seen so far have come from the Ohio River.

“I haven’t seen any in the Kanawha. Really, it’s not ideal for paddlefish. They’re pelagic; they need big expanses of open water. They’re constantly swimming because they’re filter feeders and get their nourishment by straining plankton out of the water. They also move great distances to spawn. For all those reasons, the Ohio is better habitat.”

Anglers have reported incidental catches of paddlefish in the Elk and Little Kanawha rivers as well as Middle Island Creek. Biologists say those fish were almost certainly stocked in the Ohio or Kanawha and ran up tributary streams during the high waters of spring.

Anglers in the upper Kanawha River also occasionally report incidental catches of the shovelnose sturgeon DNR biologists stocked in the river. The stockings, which began in 2002, have been discontinued. Zipfel said hatchery issues brought that program to a halt, too.

“Those [sturgeon being caught] are probably the adults we stocked there,” Zipfel said. “We had tried to take eggs from sturgeon obtained from Indiana and hatch them our hatcheries. We were successful at being able to take the eggs and hatch the fry, but we never could get the fry to live more than a few days.”

Stocking adult sturgeon, she added, simply cost too much. The fish had to be wild-caught in Indiana and transported to West Virginia a few at a time.

“When we really looked at the costs, we kind of dropped that program,” she said.

Species-specific population studies, Zipfel added, would determine how both reintroduction projects are faring.

“In the meantime, anglers who catch or snag these fish need to know that they’re protected by law, and until we know we have enough of them to be viable fisheries, they’ll probably stay that way.”

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1231 or follow @GazMailOutdoors on Twitter.

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