2002--Summer of the leaping sturgeon

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Mon, Aug. 12, 2002  

Leaping sturgeons! Giant fish injuring boaters

BY SUSAN COCKING, Miami Herald   scocking@herald.com



U.S. FISH & WILDLIFE COMMISSION
IN THE FLESH: Sturgeon such as this one displayed by, from left, Jeff Thompson, Brian McNamara, Elizabeth Rabalais and Howard Rogillio, have been troublesome.


If last year was the summer of the biting shark, then this is the summer of the leaping sturgeon.

Three Florida boaters have been struck by the giant, jumping, bony-plated fish since Memorial Day weekend. Four more sturgeon-human collisions or near-misses have been reported during the past seven years.

On Aug. 4, Brian Clemens, 50, who lives near Panama City, was struck in the chest by a sturgeon he estimates at five to six feet as he drove his 14-foot fishing boat along the Choctawhatchee River. Clemens was knocked backward off his seat and lost control of the boat, which plowed into the riverbank and threw him on shore. He suffered a cracked sternum, two broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and got 16 stitches in his knee. The fish jumped back into the water. The boat is a wreck.

''We hit head-on,'' Clemens said. ``I didn't have time to duck, dodge, or do anything. It splattered me.''

On July 4, Danny Cordero, 19, of Perry was riding his personal watercraft on the Suwannee River with his girlfriend when a sturgeon knocked both overboard. Cordero cracked some teeth and suffered facial cuts.

During Memorial Day weekend, Newberry Elementary School principal Lacy Redd, 34, was boating on the Suwannee with her husband and three children when a sturgeon estimated at six feet long and weighing about 130 pounds struck her in the chest and chin.

''It knocked me unconscious,'' Redd said. ``I had three broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and a pretty severe concussion. I count myself lucky all three kids are OK.''

Law enforcement officers released that fish back into the river.

NUMEROUS QUESTIONS

What's going on here, some Florida residents want to know. They are besieging the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with sturgeon questions reminiscent of last summer's string of shark bites in Florida and the Bahamas.

''We had a call earlier in the week, `are they attacking people on purpose?''' said USFWS biologist Patty Kelly. ``That's ridiculous. It's a purely random act.''

According to Kelly, sturgeon have been around forever in Florida and worldwide. Distinguished by rows of bony plates that line their body like alligators, they can grow more than nine feet long and weigh more than 300 pounds.

Once thriving in Florida, their numbers declined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because of overfishing for their succulent meat and to make caviar from their eggs. That decline was worsened by the construction of dams and floodgates, which prevented sturgeon from traveling from open water into rivers to spawn.

The Fish and Wildlife Service listed sturgeon as threatened in 1991, which means no one is allowed to catch and keep them. Since then, said Kelly, their numbers seem to be stable. However, boat traffic is on the rise.

''It's more likely there are more people using the rivers,'' Kelly said. ``We have no documentation of increasing numbers of fish.''

Kelly, who has helped catch sturgeon in gill nets for scientific studies, said they are not deliberately malicious to humans.

''Sturgeon have no teeth. They're very docile,'' she said. ``They don't try to bite you. They just try to get away.''

Kelly said they feed primarily on bottom-dwelling crustaceans and worms. So why do they leap into the air?

''That's the million-dollar question that nobody has the answer to,'' Kelly said. ``Some fish jump to escape predators, but [sturgeon] have no predators. So we just say they jump because they can.''

BAD TIMING

Clemens had seen sturgeon jump frequently on the Choctawhatchee before he was struck, but never worried about it. He still doesn't believe the fish meant to hit him.

''They're doing what they've been doing for 1,000 years,'' he said. ``It was a bizarre accident. My timing sucks. I just wanted to go fishing.''

Doctors say it will be at least two months before Clemens can resume his favorite hobby. Discharged on Aug. 8 from Panama City's Bay Medical Center, he has difficulty breathing and must take pain pills for his broken bones. His entire chest and belly are an ugly purple-pink from his collision with the sturgeon and ejection from the boat.

''If I had gone in the water, that would have been it,'' Clemens said. ``I hurt so bad. Nobody would have ever known what happened. That fish was gone.''

The injured Clemens lay on the riverbank for about a half-hour, unable to contact his wife Joy by cellphone, when two passing fishermen came to the rescue.

''His chest was swollen. It was getting blacker,'' said rescuer Gene Boyett. ``He had a big hole in his knee. He spat up a pretty good bit of blood. He said, `you're never gonna believe this, but the biggest fish just hit me in the chest. It was a sturgeon.'''

Boyett said he never doubted Clemens' story, especially since they spotted four more large jumping sturgeon on the way back to the boat ramp.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigators also believe Clemens, especially since one of their officers reported a near-miss with an airborne sturgeon last year on the same river.

''He was patrolling on a personal watercraft and a sturgeon jumped in front of him,'' said commission spokesman Stan Kirkland. ``He braced for impact and it missed hitting him by inches. He said it really shook him up.''

In 1999, a Gilchrist County sheriff's deputy was knocked down when a 106-pound sturgeon leaped into his patrol boat on the Suwannee. The fish died.

Three years before that, Larry Foshee of Pensacola suffered minor injuries when a sturgeon jumped into and out of his boat on the Yellow River. And in 1995, restaurant owner James Nessmith was roughed up by a sturgeon that jumped into his boat on the Suwannee.

PROTECTING SPECIES

Ironically, the boating safety threat posed by leaping sturgeon is getting wide media attention at the same time the Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to beef up protection for the species in the Gulf of Mexico.

The FWS proposes to designate 1,600 river miles and 2,333 square miles of bays and Gulf waters from Louisiana to Florida as critical habitat for the sturgeon. That designation would tighten restrictions on federal agencies and firms that have federal contracts in performing projects such as building dams, dredging, or filling in wetlands.

The irony is not lost on Lacy Redd, who still suffers numbness and pain from her sturgeon encounter.

''They talk about [sturgeon] being extinct, but you certainly see them here,'' she said. ``I certainly would hate to see it become so populated that people couldn't enjoy Florida's rivers.''
 

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