Historically, Alabama sturgeon were abundant throughout their range which included approximately 995 miles (1600 km) of the Mobile River Basin in Alabama and Mississippi. In the late 1800s they were targeted by commercial fishermen, and their numbers declined progressively until they were reduced to unsustainable populations. In most instances they were extirpated from most of their historic range. Today it is believed they may occupy only about 134 mi. (216 km) of the lower Alabama River, and farther downstream to the mouth of the Tombigbee River.
Alabama sturgeon are potamodromous, meaning they undertake regular migrations in large freshwater systems. Much like other species of sturgeon, the Alabama sturgeon is long lived and late maturing. They require exacting conditions before they will spawn, but even then, the females won't spawn every year.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 5, 2002
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and State of Alabama successfully conduct Cryopreservation of Endangered Alabama Sturgeon Genetic Material
Marion, AL - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries recently cryogenically preserved genetic material from the only Alabama sturgeon in captivity in an ongoing cooperative effort to recover the endangered species.
Photo Credit USFWS
Marion Fish Hatchery Manager Maurice Jackson, left, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Warm Springs Regional Fisheries Center biologist Bill Wayman collecting sample from the endangered Alabama sturgeon. USFWS Photo: Kevin Lee McIver. Click photo to enlarge.
Only one Alabama sturgeon, a male, is in captivity but the Service and the State of Alabama are conducting ongoing efforts along the Alabama River to capture additional fish.
According to Nick Nichols, Assistant Chief of Fisheries for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, the Alabama sturgeon partnership between the Service and the State of Alabama was formed in the mid-1990s.
"It was about this time the Service was making the push for this fish to be placed on the endangered species list and the State was named as the lead agency in the effort," said Nichols. "Funding was provided both for collection efforts and for preparing the Marion Fish Hatchery to undertake propagation work once enough fish had been captured."
Once cited by CNN as "the rarest unprotected fish in the United States", the Service listed the Alabama sturgeon as an endangered species in May 2000.
State fishery biologists injected the fish with hormones at Alabama's Marion Fish Hatchery on March 27 to initiate milt production.
Bill Wayman, a Service fisheries biologist detailed from the Warm Springs Regional Fisheries Center, Warm Springs, Ga., drew the samples for cryopreservation which was completed on March 29.
"The genetic material was cryopreserved according to a procedure previously used successfully with shovelnose sturgeon," said Wayman. "Overall the effort produced nine 0.5 milliliter straws of frozen genetic material, which are now being held in the repository at the Warm Springs Fish Technology Center."
Once a female is captured, the male's cryopreserved genetic material can be used to fertilize the female and produce sturgeon offspring that could be released back into the wild.
State and Federal biologists will continue the effort next year to increase the amount of genetic material held in storage.
"Although the amount and concentration was less than anticipated, the effort was a success in that genetic material was able to be cryopreserved for future use," said Wayman.
There wasn't a single cause for the decimation of Alabama sturgeon populations, although overfishing did play a significant role. Other obstacles that prevent their recovery are culmulative, and include the construction of dams which blocked their Spring migrations to ancestral spawning grounds, pollution which disrupted the balance of the delicate ecosystems they inhabit, and alteration of the rivers for navigation which destroyed spawning habitat.
Despite all the protection afforded the Alabama sturgeon under the ESA, and the recovery efforts by State and Federal resource agencies, it may very well prove to be a case of too little too late. The decline of Alabama sturgeon populations may very well be irreversible.
"...when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again." ~Charles Wm. Beebe
In 1976, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) first classified the Alabama sturgeon as a separate species from the more common shovelnose sturgeon. They began studying the fish in 1980 because of its dramatic decline, much of which is attributable to commercial overfishing, and loss of habitat as a result of navigation and pollution.
The FWS first proposed listing the Alabama sturgeon as an endangered species (ESA) in 1993, however the listing didn't occur until 2000 because of heated opposition by a coalition of businesses and industry groups who had commercial interests in or near the Alabama sturgeon's habitat. The coalition filed suit against the government in an attempt to stop the listing, and a lengthy court battle ensued. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court's ruling in favor of the FWS, and the species Scaphirhynchus suttkusi (Alabama sturgeon) maintained its listing as Endangered under the ESA.
A complete list of critical habitat for Alabama sturgeon can be found at the Alabama Ecological Services Field Office website.
In April 2009, FWS announced a critical habitat designation for Alabama sturgeon.
Critical habitat is a term used in the Endangered Species Act referring to specific geographic areas with features essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species and that may require special management and protection. A critical habitat designation does not establish a preserve or refuge nor does it affect individual citizens, organizations, states, local governments, or other non-federal entities that do not require federal permits or funding. Critical habitat does not include existing developed sites within the proposed unit such as dams, piers, or marinas.
Fertilized sturgeon eggs in a hatchery jar. The resulting fingerlings will be introduced into areas where their genetics reflect compatibility.
See the Jerre Mohler-Boyd Kynard-Brian Hickson interviews in the Sturgeon Gallery regarding hatchery raised fish and restocking.
Biologists have reason to believe there may have been hybridization of the species with shovelnose sturgeon.
Collecting eggs for artificial propagation
Collecting sturgeon milt
Mixing sturgeon eggs and milt