By Judy Althaus
Steve Herrington is no stranger to the challenge of having babies. He and his wife produced two little ones themselves over the last three years. Insurance, work schedules, finances, sleep – it’s hard to become a parent! Yet Steve knows that human efforts may pale when compared to those of the Gulf sturgeon.
As the Conservancy’s Director of Freshwater Conservation in Florida, Steve is part Crocodile Dundee and part Ph.D. science nerd. Remarkably busy and productive, he is bettering the future of many aquatic species by improving river connectivity and reducing obstacles to migration.
One of those species is the Gulf sturgeon – a threatened, prehistoric fish whose ancestors would spot dinosaurs when they leapt from the water. This ancient and bizarre-looking fish spawns its young in only seven rivers in the world. Its future depends upon its ability to fight its way upstream, including up Florida’s Apalachicola and Yellow rivers.
“The Gulf sturgeon is a member of the most imperiled groups of fishes out there,” says Herrington. “Today this 200-million year old species needs your help and mine.”
So what’s the problem?
Over-fishing has traditionally been the major problem for sturgeons; they’re a source of both meat and caviar. But today, primary difficulties are dams and habitat loss. Historic spawning shoals become harder to reach, more polluted and muddier every year. Yet the fish’s survival as a species requires it to reach these historic habitats to breed.
What have we done to help?
Herrington’s work with the Gulf sturgeon started with efforts to help several species of migratory fish on the Apalachicola River system. Here, efforts between the Conservancy and our academic and agency partners made history. They led to simple changes that allowed some migratory fishes to routinely pass through locks at three hydroelectric dams.
This was exciting progress! It was a windfall to imperiled species such as the Alabama shad, whose numbers have crashed nationwide but now appear to be increasing in the Apalachicola. However, passage through the locks proved to be too challenging for the Gulf sturgeon, which remains unable to reach shoals north of the dam.
“It appears that – for sturgeon – passing through a lock is equivalent to climbing up a cliff,” notes Herrington. “They’re bottom-dwellers, so we’re trying to understand what might work best for them.”
Okay … next?
One way to help was found on the nearby Yellow River – a large, unspoiled Northwest Florida blackwater that teems with life from its mouth in Pensacola Bay to the Alabama border and beyond.
By float, boat, canoe and on foot, Steve and his team have explored more than 200 miles of the Yellow River watershed – every nook and tributary – to inventory and prioritize damaged habitats for restoration. Among these was the only known Yellow River spawning shoal for the Gulf sturgeon, which proved to be in urgent need of restoration.
At that site, just north of the Florida-Alabama border, exhausted sturgeon arrive after a 100-mile migration. But instead of a healthy spawning site characterized by the clean, hard-bottom the sturgeon need to reproduce, they’ve been finding a thick layer of sediment – the result of river bank destruction and a rapidly eroding dirt road.
“This finding was serious,” explains Herrington. “The Gulf sturgeon and many other imperiled river species are very sensitive to habitat degradations. Sedimentation at this site endangers populations of sturgeon and other species as well.”
To the rescue
Steve collaborated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Defense, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to plan and coordinate restoration at the site. This includes closing a road on private property that leads to the site, stabilizing and repairing the riverbank, and planting new vegetation along the bank.
“We are working with several caring and cooperative land owners and agency partners,” Herrington continues. “And in spring of 2011, the county unanimously approved our plans to move forward. A refurbished nursery will await the embattled sturgeon – right where they expect to find it in the Yellow River.
“We hope to see banner seasons for baby Gulf sturgeon for years to come.”
This multi-state, carefully orchestrated project demonstrates how the Conservancy can sometimes work quickly and cut through red tape to protect aquatic habitat for imperiled species – from manatees to mussels to fish.
And, who knows? Sometimes Steve Herrington and staff will even sing a lullaby.