By BOB PALMER
Scientists say 50 million years before dinosaurs left their footprints outside Glen Rose paddlefish swam the waters of the earth. American paddlefish populations have declined dramatically, however, primarily because of overfishing, habitat destruction, and pollution.
A small crowd gathered at the Jefferson turning basin and boat ramp recently to watch the first step in a campaign to repopulate the species.
“More than 6,400 American paddlefish were stocked by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) last week into Big Cypress Bayou and Caddo Lake,” Tim Bister with TPWD said.
This stocking was a cooperative effort between TPWD and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The fish were raised by USFWS at the Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery in Tishomingo, Oklahoma. A total of 14,000 fish are planned to be stocked in 2018.
“This is the first year in a 10-year restocking effort to reestablish a self-sustaining population of the American paddlefish in the Big Cypress Bayou and Caddo Lake,” Bister explained.
Collins Academy has also played a role in the feasibility study prior to the restocking effort.
“The Paddlefish Reintroduction Project has gone from an experimental posture where scientists were determining whether the species would stay and thrive in the Caddo Lake system to a restocking effort,” Collins Academy GM Gary Endlsey said. “Studies have determined that American Paddlefish love the conditions presented. A robust stocking program is now underway.”
Prior to any paddlefish stocking, a plan was developed to establish a more naturalized water flow for Big Cypress Bayou and Caddo Lake.
“These flow recommendations have been met using water releases from Lake O’ the Pines,” Bister explained. “Once paddlefish mature to spawning age, these natural flows will provide important environmental and biological cues for fish during the spring spawning season.”
In 2008, USACE completed a project that installed a gravel shoal in Big Cypress Bayou, just upstream of Jefferson. Gravel areas in the river are important for successful paddlefish spawning. The USFWS has also identified other potential gravel spawning areas downstream of Lake O’ the Pines that can be monitored in the future for paddlefish spawning.
“Once flow recommendations and habitat considerations were established, 47 paddlefish were stocked in 2014 as part of an initial project to determine if fish would stay in the Big Cypress Bayou and Caddo Lake or if they would be attracted to downstream flow and go over the Caddo Lake Spillway,” Bister continued. “Each fish was implanted with radio transmitters to track their movement. After one year, no fish were detected leaving Caddo Lake.”
An additional 21 radio tagged fish were released in 2016 at the Starr Ranch on the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge. This release location was closer to the Caddo Lake Spillway and intended to further test whether fish would stay upstream of the dam.
“Fish continued to show fidelity to Caddo Lake and Big Cypress Bayou,” Bister said. “With these initial research successes, 119,000 juvenile American paddlefish are planned to be stocked from 2018-2027 as part the 10-year stocking plan.”
Future paddlefish research will include recapturing and implanting fish with acoustic transmitters, which will allow biologists the opportunity to track fish as they reach adulthood and hopefully spawn.
“While the goal of this paddlefish stocking plan is the reestablishment of a self-sustaining population of paddlefish, research will also help evaluate the environmental flows project in the Big Cypress Basin, which impacts many species of fish and wildlife and will help to maintain a healthy river ecosystem,” Bister concluded.
Endsley joined Bister in thanking those who played a part in the program.
“I want to thank U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for their skillful work related to reestablishing this unique species in one of its historic ranges,” Endsley said. “I also want to thank the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Northeast Texas Municipal Water District, and Caddo Lake Institute for working with all the stakeholders to develop and implement the prescribed flows from Lake O’ the Pines that make all this possible.”
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