The volunteer crew members pulled on their life jackets and climbed into a flat-bottomed aluminum boat at a ramp near Nebraska City, Neb. They came out early on a cold, gray April morning hoping to catch an endangered pallid sturgeon.
For two weeks each spring, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission collects and counts pallid sturgeon. The goal is to find wild fish large enough for spawning to be sent to hatcheries for breeding. Their offspring are restocked into the river to supplement the wild pallid population.
More than 20 years after joining the endangered species list, the pallid sturgeon is treading water. Slicing through farm country, the Missouri River – home to a threatened pallid sturgeon population – is a piece of the vibrant farm economy. Any effort to save the pallid sturgeon can’t come at the expense of the vital agriculture industry.
Thad Huenemann, a fisheries biologist with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, led the pallid search group. After covering some safety procedures, he lowered an outboard motor into swirling brown water.
On one side, the boat passed the vast Iowa floodplain and fertile farm fields ready for planting. On the Nebraska side, a barge loading facility served as a reminder the Missouri river is still a working river.
The boat reached an orange buoy bobbing in the water marking an underwater trotline. This is how pallid sturgeon are captured. A long rope strung with hooks is anchored to the riverbed where the bottom-feeding sturgeon swim. As volunteers began bringing up the line, Huenemann was hopeful.
“We’ve stocked a total of roughly 137,000 (pallid sturgeon) since 1992 back into the river,” Huenemann said. “We rarely catch wild ones anymore, but they are still out there.”
Shovelnose sturgeon are pulled off the first few hooks, cousins of the pallid but smaller and brown like the water. Then, Huenemann spotted a larger fish on the line. He called for a net and piloted the boat closer.
“That’s a pallid,” Huenemann said. “You can see the size difference. Pallids get much larger. And see how he has a little bit lighter color.”
The pallid had gray scales down its back but was milky white underneath. Its nose, or rostrum, was flat and pointed like an ancient spearhead.
Huenemann said there is some evidence pallid sturgeon are attempting to spawn in the river but young hatched in the wild don’t seem to survive. Finding a young pallid that was born in the river is practically unheard of.
Conflict without scarcity
George Jordan, the pallid sturgeon recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, explains the modern Missouri River works well for people, but not for pallids.
“We’ve got a fish species that’s been on this planet for thousands of years and its ancestors literally millions of years that within the course of a few hundred years has started to go extinct,” Jordan said.
Think of those two sides of the river in Nebraska City. Dams protect farm fields from all but the most extreme floods, but they also restrict spawning areas. The straightened river channel allows for barge traffic but cuts off shallow river habitat.
But Randy Asbury, executive director of the Coalition to Protect the Missouri River, said reversing those alterations to the river to help an endangered species could threaten the river’s role in the regional economy.
“Short of there being balance between the environment and economics there will always be a tension, a friction, or a battle that would exist in relation to any recovery efforts,” said Asbury, who advocates for farmers, barge operators and utilities.
Sandi Zellmer, a law professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the Missouri has been called a river that has conflict without scarcity. There aren’t the same water battles that occur on western rivers in more arid regions, like the Colorado.
“But we have had perpetual conflict between farmers, tribal interests, wildlife interests, cities, and navigation,” Zellmer said.
And if there is common ground among those interests, she said, it hasn’t been found yet.
George Jordan understands economic interests, in particular, loom large on the Missouri River, so he’s not calling for drastic changes.
“I don’t think the intent of the recovery program is to turn the river back to something that perhaps Lewis and Clark saw, but it’s to incrementally address those threats to the species to a point where it’s sufficient that the species can sustain itself long term,” Jordan said.
Incremental changes are happening. The Army Corps of Engineers has a goal to rebuild nearly 20,000 acres of shallow water habitat in the lower Missouri by the year 2020. A survey in 2010 reported more than 7,000 acres had been completed.
Catch of the day
Volunteers pulled more fish onto Thad Huenemann's boat. Dozens of shovelnose sturgeon and the occasional channel catfish were weighed, measured, counted and released back to the river. The real prize was a wild pallid sturgeon.
In order to be useful for breeding in the hatchery, a wild pallid must be large enough to show it has reached reproductive age. The first pallid caught by Thad Huenemann and his crew was large enough. However, an identification tag implanted below its scales matched a database showing it had been raised in a hatchery and released into the river in 2001. It went back into the water.
Later, an even larger pallid came on the line with no tags or identification marks.
“If there’s no markings on them we assume that they’re potentially wild,” Huenemann said.
That fish would go to a hatchery in Blind Pony, Mo., for genetic testing to determine whether it is a wild pallid and suitable for spawning.
This spring, volunteers with Nebraska Game and Parks caught 194 pallid sturgeon. Only 22 of them were candidates for hatchery breeding. But those fish could create thousands of offspring and, for now, that’s enough to save the species.