Protecting Missouri’s imperiled paddlefish

BY CHRISTINE COESTER

It is barely 6:30 a.m. on Friday morning and Bruce Drecktrah is on the water.

He is here with two fellow snaggers, Terry Timmons and Stan Frank. They are the first of many this morning to drag fist-sized hooks through the waters of the Lake of the Ozarks, hoping to snag the American paddlefish, a Missouri relic.

They raced the sun from Columbia to the Wigwam access point. In the cold air, they bundle and prepare for the task at hand. On the boat ramp is Franks’ red, four-door pick-up truck, with a boat trailer attached. They expertly coax the ten-foot long boat to slowly slip into the reservoir.

As calls of geese echo through the stillness of morning, the men climb aboard the sputtering boat.

The paddlefish survived for millions of years in Missouri rivers. Its presence in Missouri waters and throughout the country has sharply declined in last century from irreversible changes in habitat, poaching and overfishing. These pressures are only increasing and Missouri’s state aquatic animal is hanging on by a thread. In the state, much of its survival is dependent on the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) hatchery.

Off the boat, Drecktrah works for the MDC as field division chief and has worked with paddlefish for more than 20 years. Before accepting his current position, he was manager of Blind Pony fisheries hatchery, the same hatchery that stocks these fish.

Capable of weighing in at more than 100 pounds,  the paddlefish is “a dinosaur-type fish,” Drecktrah said. “It goes back to millions of years ago and how the fish looked then.”

Essentially unchanged from prehistoric times, the paddlefish has a giant paddle-like snout, or rostrum. Usually one-third the length of the fish, the rostrum helps the paddlefish find the microscopic organisms, called zooplankton, it feeds on.

Filter feeders, paddlefish have gills designed to strain zooplankton continuously. Mouths open, they indiscriminately rake the water for zooplankton as they swim through the water column. Studies have shown that the rostrum has receptors sensitive to electric fields that concentrations of zooplankton give off. This allows paddlefish to use their rostrum as an antenna to locate their tiny prey.

For millions of years, paddlefish have relied on rivers with shallow pools and rocky bottoms for spawning. The female releases a sticky adhesive that allows the eggs to cling to gravel in the swaying currents. Not only does water height and flow need to be just right, but the water must also be a particular temperature to initiate spawning, between 52 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Dam construction and dredging have significantly limited the spawning ground in Missouri reservoirs. It takes nearly a decade before a female paddlefish is able to reproduce, or spawn, and about seven years before a male can. Furthermore, if the conditions aren’t right, the fish may forego spawning that year.

Poaching and the demand for caviar

Over the turn of the last century, caviar connoisseurs have begun to rely heavily on paddlefish for caviar. Demand for the product has increased as the beluga sturgeon, formerly the fish most used for caviar, has been overfished.

“All the sturgeon stocks around the world have been depleted,” Scarnecchia said. Additionally, the Chinese paddlefish is thought to be extinct since 2007. Management of the world’s giant fish has failed. Simply put, the fish cannot sustain the high harvest rates that people would like them to sustain.

“Sturgeon are especially abysmal, but the fact that some paddlefish are still around shows there is some management,” he said. How much of their survival is linked to management or to reservoir rearing, Scarnecchia doesn’t know.

This time last year, the MDC’s protection division and federal agents worked together on an undercover investigation to catch individuals poaching in Warsaw, Mo. The undercover operation, known as Operation Roadhouse, resulted in the arrest of eight people for interstate and international trafficking of paddlefish caviar and 245 citations for 122 others.

“Those eight people were the ones purchasing paddlefish from local fishers, going to a motel to extract the eggs and process them, and then crossing state lines,” a special investigations field agent said.

The poachers took eggs as far as New Jersey, a violation of the Lacey Act, which prohibits the transport of fish, wildlife or any of their parts across state lines. A large female paddlefish can produce upwards of 15 pounds of eggs. Sold on the black market for anywhere from $20-35 per ounce, a single paddlefish’s roe could sell for $4,000.

Steve Kahrs, who co-owns Osage Catfisheries, Inc. with his brother Pete Kahrs, has been in the  Paddlefish caviar business since the 80s. The business was passed down to them from their late father.

Their company is the only one in the U.S. that rears paddlefish. They even have their own paddlefish bloodline, with genes different from those in the wild, from which they harvest caviar. Most of the export is overseas to Russia and Asia, Kahrs explained. And with current market prices, Kahrs makes roughly $175 per pound of caviar, he said. Which is roughly $11 per ounce.

The Missouri Department of Conservation requires several permits for commercial fisheries. In addition to a permit allowing the fishing of any commercial species, if they intend to harvest roe, or fish eggs, to make caviar, they also need a roe fish harvest permit.

In Missouri, there are only three rivers that are considered roe-harvestable waterways for businesses: the Missouri River, the Mississippi and St. Francis River. Fishing for roe is limited to the Mississippi River. Ten states border the Mississippi River, each with its own regulations on commercial fishing. Managing paddlefish populations and preventing overfishing is a challenge that the MDC faces.

Trying to manage a migratory fish population across state borders is complicated to say the least, said Joe McMullin, big river specialist with the MDC.

“It is something that we beat our heads against,” he said. “As conservationists, we want to do what is best for the fish, but there are obviously other interests and it can be fairly political.”

While there are attempts among the states to come to agreements with one another on how to manage paddlefish populations, little progress has been made to create a national approach. McMullin describes the Mississippi River as a “patchwork of regulations,” changing as the current moves along the river.

“It’s a hurdle we haven’t been able to clear,” he said.

At the most basic level, a commercial fisher who is a resident of Missouri will spend $1,025 on a commercial fishing license, a roe fishing permit and a dealer permit; a non-resident will spend $7,000. These steep prices are part of why an illegal market developed in Missouri around the reservoirs.

Poaching, however, is a smaller concern for Kahrs. He is more concerned with the new management program in Oklahoma that has detrimentally impacted his businesses profitability.

“The program in Oklahoma is much worse than what poachers could ever do,” he said. “States shouldn’t be able to take business away from private companies.”

Models of management

Oklahoma changed its management of their paddlefish populations in the last few years, Scarnecchia explained. “If a snagger is interested, the state will clean the fish for the fisher and if it is a female, process the eggs as caviar and sell it legally, generating revenue for the state,” he said.

Scarnecchia, who works with paddlefish management programs in Oklahoma, Montana and North Dakota, believes this type of approach is a potential solution to funding limitations because it effectively manages a state’s resources. Rather than throwing the valuable caviar out, as most fisherman do, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation sells the caviar on the market, generating revenue for the state.

“Sustain the fisheries, but have them be sustainable,” he said. 

The money earned goes back into resource management, and as a result of their interactions with fishers, the state developed the best data sets on paddlefish anywhere, Scarnecchia said.

Drecktrah said the MDC had considered a management model similar to the one in Oklahoma, but decided against it.

In some ways, it seems backwards for Missouri to put so much effort into protecting a fish that has low natural recruitment and is primarily stocked to support a sport fishery, an MDC employee explained. In the state, paddlefish management seems focused on providing the best sport fishery not ensuring its natural recruitment.

“They are some of Americas truly irreplaceable fish,” Scarnecchia said. “I think [the fish] needs more effective management and attention than they’ve gotten.”

Restocking the reservoirs

In 1929, Bagnell Dam was built on the Osage River and it created the Lake of the Ozarks. Conservationists knew back then that they would need to create a paddlefish management program. With the construction of the Truman Reservoir, the paddlefish effectively lost their spawning ground. As a result, the MDC has been raising paddlefish since the early 1970s at the Blind Pony Hatchery in Sweet Springs, Mo., to support the high-demand from fishers for this unique sport-fish.

“As a rule, on a normal year, the reservoirs Truman and Lake of the Ozarks will get 15,000 each. Table Rock will get 7,500.” Drecktrah said. “Then we are actually putting some on the Black River in Southeast Missouri and they get 500.”

Conservationists debate whether paddlefish reproduce naturally at all in these reservoirs, but there is little evidence. It is general consensus, however, that without the work at Blind Pony Hatchery, this fish would disappear from many bodies of water in Missouri, Drecktrah explained. Every year, in preparation for the sport fishing demand, Blind Pony spawns thousands of paddlefish.

Dennis Scarnecchia, professor of fisheries at the University of Idaho, said the worry with hatcheries like Blind Pony is that paddlefish will become domesticated and dependent upon them. Although paddlefish can be raised in hatcheries, it’s not a good long-term solution, he said. “You want it to be a wild species, and that depends on whether we can have natural reproduction out there,” he said.

At Blind Pony, four 10-foot round 800-gallon tanks hold each a male and a female paddlefish collected from the reservoirs, Jake Colehour, hatchery manager said.

Conservationists begin the process at 8 a.m. by first harvesting sperm from each male. Two men, dressed in waders and boots, hop into the tank and begin corralling the male paddlefish. They use the side of the tank to help pin the fish and flip him over, underside exposed. A third MDC employee comes around with a cloth to clean the underbelly and then insert a syringe into where the male would naturally release his sperm. On average, they collect two 10-milliliter syringes of sperm from each male.

An MDC employee looks through a microscope to determine the health of the sperm collected from a paddlefish at the Blind Pony hatchery.

An MDC employee looks through a microscope to determine the health of the sperm collected from a paddlefish at the Blind Pony hatchery.

After doing this with all four males, they examine sperm samples under a microscope.

Through the lens of the microscope, the sample initially looks like a faint abstract pattern but once a droplet of water is added, the pattern begins to wiggle in what seems like millions of places, signaling that the sperm are alive and healthy.

The next step is the collection of eggs from the female paddlefish. In the same way the female paddlefish are restrained, an employee applies pressure and the coerced eggs ooze out. Once eggs have been collected from the four females and put into one container, an MDC employee uses an eyedropper to add a few drops of sperm.

In order to simulate the gentle currents of the river, MDC paddlefish biologist Trish Yasger, stirs paddlefish eggs with a feather.

In order to simulate the gentle currents of the river, MDC paddlefish biologist Trish Yasger, stirs paddlefish eggs with a feather. Credit/Christine Coester

With feather in hand, Trish Yasger, a MDC paddlefish biologist, waits for one of the hatchery employees to pour water into the bowl. Using the feather, she stirs for 30 minutes to mimic the gentle movements of shallow water currents.

In a week’s time, the eggs will hatch and the baby fish, or fry, will grow in tubs of water at the hatchery. Later they are moved to one of Blind Pony’s 39 11-and-a-half-acre ponds, where they will continue to grow until it is time for the reservoirs to be restocked. This group of paddlefish will become known as the “2014 class.” Each year a new class of paddlefish is released into the reservoirs.

Outside the demand from snaggers for this sport fishery, paddlefish are highly prized for the caviar that can be produced from their eggs, and Missouri reservoirs make for prime poaching ground, Yasger said.

Unlike paddlefish on the rivers, which are lean from fighting the heavy currents, paddlefish easily grow plump feeding on zooplankton in the calm waters of the reservoir. Not only do they grow larger in these areas, but their movement is restricted by the dams. It makes poaching in the reservoirs like shooting fish in a barrel.

Snagging

In 2012, the number of individual permit holders for fishing in the state was over 800,000. While there is currently no way to determine how many of those people are snagging paddlefish, Yasger says the snaggers are economically beneficial for the state.

Regular fishing season does not begin until early summer and the business from fishers coming to the area is appreciated by local businesses. In many ways, the arrival of paddlefish snaggers is a ritualistic welcoming of spring.

For those who enjoy the sport of snagging, the season goes by too quickly. It runs six weeks, from March 15 until April 30.

Over the course of three hours, dozens of boats are on the water but by this time, six paddlefish, each at least 34 inches long from the eye to the fork of the tail, lie nearly still in the stern of Drecktrah’s boat, occasionally flopping weakly. Each man has snagged two paddlefish, the most they may legally catch on the reservoirs.

When they arrive at the dock and prepare to leave, their impressive catch lures in other fisherman who did not have the same luck just a few miles down on the reservoir. The men joke about using special bait, as they point towards the horizon where they were snagging, but it goes without saying that they all really know, “…you just throw it out there and hope.”

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