lake sturgeon sampling

Jimmie Garth, the lead fish biologist at the Edenton National Fish Hatchery, is seen on the Tennessee River holding a lake sturgeon that was raised at the Edenton hatchery, during a recent fish sampling trip on the Tennessee River. 

EDENTON — North Carolina’s dwindling population of lake sturgeon is getting a boost by a multi-agency effort that includes the Edenton National Fish Hatchery.

The hatchery received its annual batch of lake sturgeon on Wednesday, May 26, said veterinarian and hatchery manager Sonia Mumford. The fry of sturgeon arrived about 30 days after being hatched at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hatchery in Warm Springs, Georgia.

‘They are tiny,” Mumford said. “What they look like are tadpoles.”

The Edenton hatchery will grow the sturgeon to lengths of about 6 to 9 inches before they are released in the French Broad River outside Asheville. Some also will be released in the Tennessee River in Knoxville, Tennessee, Mumford said.

Lake sturgeon, one of about two dozen species of sturgeon, were once prevalent in North Carolina and the Tennessee River, according to Mumford.

“They were incredibly common in the late 1800s,” she said.

Overharvesting, in part because of their prized eggs used as caviar and the fact they are good to eat, led to a depression in population numbers and to near extinction in North Carolina. Efforts to revive the fish began 19 years ago, and the Edenton hatchery has been involved the last six years.

“This has been a longstanding program in the Southeast,” Mumford said. “It seems like it’s going well.”

One goal of the program is to generate a self-sustaining population of lake sturgeon that people can fish from, she said. For now, fishing for lake sturgeon is catch-and-release only in North Carolina.

Lake sturgeon females do not sexually mature until about 18 to 20 years of age, which makes restoration efforts a slow process. That sounds like a long time, but lake sturgeon can live to be 100 years old.

“We’re hoping they will outlive us,” Mumford said of the sturgeon in the program.

Other program participants include the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which has an annual lake sturgeon fishing season that runs through September. According to the Wisconsin DNR site, the minimum length of lake sturgeon that can be caught and kept is 60 inches. Other participants include North Carolina Wildlife Resources and state agencies in Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

The sturgeon program is one of several programs the Edenton hatchery will be involved in this summer. For instance, for the first time ever the hatchery will participate in a program to raise and release new populations of gopher frogs. The ground-dwelling frog thrives in the Sand Hills region of the state and is not listed as federally endangered. However, it is a protected species in North Carolina, Mumford said.

The frogs prefer to live in the stumps of longleaf pines that inhabit the Sand Hills, which is formed of about eight counties in central North Carolina. Between the stumps they build extensive tunnel networks to move about.

“They actually spend about 98% of their lives underground,” Mumford said.

The hatchery is raising tadpoles hatched from eggs collected in Croatan National Forest. Mumford said she and other hatchery staff are already seeing hind legs develop on the tadpoles. Eventually, their front legs will develop, and they will lose their tails.

Another annual program the local hatchery is about to begin is its striped bass harvesting. The bass are raised in ponds until they are large enough to eat dry feed from the surface and are eventually released to area waterways.

Other hatchery efforts to sustain marine life include its work to revive populations of the endangered Cape Fear Shiner, a minnow-sized fish that is endemic to the Cape Fear River Basin. It's not found anywhere else in the world, Mumford said.

“They could cease to exist” without the intervention of the hatchery and other agencies, Mumford said.

The Edenton Fish Hatchery is located at 1102 W. Queen Street, Edenton, and can be reached by telephone at 252-482-4118. The hatchery is open seven day a week from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. between March and mid-December.