Paddlefish partners restoring prehistoric fish to rivers

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Wildlife management and conservation agencies routinely partner to save money and other resources, and to make things happen in a sometimes complicated bureaucratic environment.

But in its ongoing effort to restore a non-game prehistoric fish to the Ohio River watershed, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is partnering with the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.

Prior small-scale interactions have linked the zoo and PFBC, but Mike Stephan, a native species specialist at the zoo, said their paddlefish partnership could spearhead new levels of cooperation.

"Fish and Boat isn't built to show off what they're doing as well as the Pittsburgh Zoo. We're in a better position to show off the animals," he said. "One of my goals was to get involved with Fish and Boat, establish this partnership to kind of help each other out."

With distinctive paddle-like snouts that make up about a third of an adult length that can reach 7 feet, paddlefish are found in fossil records from millions of years ago. A huge mouth under the long snout is filled with many gill rakers that strain tiny food organisms -- plankton and small insects.

Paddlefish travel long distances in river systems, and reproducing populations still exist in the Mississippi River. Water pollution and navigation dams are believed to have caused the fish's extinction in Pennsylvania by 1919.

"The Fish and Boat Commission began restocking paddlefish around Pittsburgh in 1991," said the agency's Denny Tubbs. "Similar programs exist in New York and Maryland. The hope is that fish from our program and theirs will meet up in the middle and establish a reproducing population."

Penn State and California University of Pennsylvania are evaluating the paddlefish reintroduction effort. David Argent, chair of Cal U's Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences Department, said restoring paddlefish is "the right thing to do," but the question of how they'll bypass dams "is a tough one."

"While [dams] are an impediment to movement, paddlefish can find ways to successfully lock through or navigate through hydroelectric dams," he said. "Certainly dams have altered habitat conditions in the river, yet for this species [dams] have been identified as one of the key staging areas during spawning runs."

To date there's "no information to support reproduction in Pennsylvania," said Fish and Boat's Bob Ventorini. Most of the fish are raised at the Linesville Fish Culture Station until they're 14-18 inches. Stocking alternates yearly in the Ohio and Allegheny rivers -- about 13,000 were planted in the Ohio in August.

The zoo got 10 of the Linesville paddlefish and raised them at their Highland Park facility. A couple of weeks ago Stephan and other staff stocked them in the Ohio River.

"It's not a huge expense. It ties up a quarantine tank for a bit," Stephan said. "We learned a lot about the husbandry of fish. We had to figure out how to keep them from beating up that long paddle on the wall of the tank. We put a cushion on the wall to soften the blow."

Paddlefish are currently not on exhibit at the zoo. Stephan said the paddlefish husbandry project, partnerships with PFBC and the display of native species are expected to grow in coming years.

John Hayes: .


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