It appears as an unlikely scenario – a major effort to bring back a legendary critter of old but using a small and remote facility.

We’re talking about a federal project with partners to re-establish, at least partly, the lake sturgeon, a fish that had legendary status in bygone times. One of the centers of this activity is Mammoth Spring National Fish Hatchery, one of the oldest federal hatcheries in the nation.

Established in 1903, the hatchery is a story in itself, but the sturgeon project is far enough underway that hopes of success are strong.

"This is a 25-year federal project," said Dewayne French, assistant manager of the Mammoth Spring hatchery. "We are in our sixth year with it."

At Mammoth Spring, the sturgeons are carefully nurtured from tiny fry until they are large enough to make it on their own, then they are moved to other hatcheries closer to where they will be released into the wild.

French dipped into a tank filled with swirling water and scooped up a sturgeon an inch and a half long. It was hatched about three months previously, he said.

Lake sturgeons can grow to huge sizes – like nine feet long and 300 pounds in weight.

They are holdovers from the dinosaur age, and they look prehistoric. More significant, though, is sturgeons, along with several other wildlife species, are indicators of the health of their environments. So are mussels in Arkansas waters, and these are another project at the Mammoth Spring hatchery.

At a glance, a sturgeon looks like a shark except for the mouth. A sturgeon, though, is a bottom feeder, and that is where the pollutions and danger signals in water quality are concentrated. The surgeon has a downward protruding mouth that functions like a vacuum, sucking up small food items on the bottom of a lake or river.

For Indians, Native Americans, sturgeons were important. They provided food, oil and even a form of leather. In the 19th century, though sturgeon numbers were greatly depleted by commercial fishermen who mistakenly believed the big fish were destroying other fish species.

Lake sturgeons are large, and they are long lived. They also take years to reach maturity, and this is a factor in the restoration project being mapped for 25 years.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a female sturgeon is 24 to 26 years old before she can reproduce, and she spawns just once every four to nine years. This female sturgeon can live to be 150 years old, however.

Feeding the young sturgeons at the hatchery is a carefully planned and somewhat complex operation, French explained.

The smallest of the fish, the inch-long new ones in the moving water tanks, are fed a manufactured high protein food that looks like dark grains of sand. As the fish grow, so does this food. It increased to bird shot size then to about BB size.

But the factory food by itself isn’t sufficient as the young fish become larger. They must have a supplement to keep their digestive systems functioning well, and this comes in the form of tiny worms. "These blood worms are about the size of a human hair," French said. The worms are added to the pellet diets at the hatchery.

There is another element to the lake sturgeon project. It is genetics.

Under stringent federal scientific guidelines, sturgeons stocked into a body of water must be of the same genetic background as the sturgeons already living there or of the sturgeons that once lived in that water.

Data bases are closely monitored so sturgeon roe with the necessary correct DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is channeled through the hatchery rearing, through transportation and to the water where the new sturgeons are gestined.

Yes, DNA is much involved in fish hatcheries just as it is in television dramas.

 

(Log Cabin outdoor writer Joe Mosby can be contacted by e-mail at jhmosby@cyberback.com.)