Learn about the Gulf sturgeon, the problem boaters have had with
these large jumping fish, and how you can reduce your risk of
FWC LE Officer
Bret Gill holds a Gulf sturgeon mount.
Photo Credit: FWC
It's an ugly fish with a face only another sturgeon could love.
It's the prehistoric-looking, sucker-mouthed, scute-covered Gulf
sturgeon and it's creating quite a stir on the rivers in North
Although the sturgeon residing in the Suwannee River have
received the bulk of the media attention during the last several
years, the fish are present in quite a few rivers in the northern
portion of the Sunshine State.
The sturgeon can trace their roots back 200 million years. And
even though they're just doing what they've been doing for eons,
it's causing a problem for some boaters. The Gulf sturgeon makes
its presence known by jumping out of the water. With adult fish
reaching up to eight feet in length and weighing up to 200 pounds,
they can make quite a splash.
Boaters have been injured while traveling on the Suwannee River
and other rivers in the Florida Panhandle when they are struck by
the jumping fish. There's no apparent warning...the sturgeon just
jump. If a boater is in the wrong place at the wrong time, there's
a chance of injury.
In 2006, nine people were injured by direct strikes with
sturgeon. Two people were seriously injured when they swerved their
boat to avoid a jumping sturgeon and hit a bridge piling. In 2007,
nine people were also injured by a jumping sturgeon. A man drowned
when he was thrown from a boat when the operator swerved to avoid a
jumping sturgeon. During 2008, there were three incidences of
sturgeon jumping into boats. Three people were injured during these
Scientists believe there are approximately 10,000-14,000 Gulf
sturgeons that make the Suwannee their summer home, with far fewer
numbers in the six other major U.S. rivers where Gulf sturgeon are
known to spawn. The Suwannee River, which flows from the Okefenokee
Swamp in southeastern Georgia down through northern Florida, is one
of the most pristine rivers in the country - with no dams for
returning sturgeons to contend with. The Suwannee is considered one
of the last "wild" rivers in Florida.
The fish use almost the entire length of the river to complete
their complicated life history. The sturgeon spawning grounds on
the Suwannee are 140 miles (220 kilometers) upstream from the
mouth. Unlike salmon, which die after spawning in freshwater,
sturgeons - which can live to be 25-plus years old - spend summer
in the river, then swim back down the river to winter in the
Sturgeon return to the eastern Gulf of Mexico during the winter,
where they feed heartily. They typically do not eat while they are
in the river - losing somewhere around 20 percent of their body
mass. Because of this extended fast, biologists wonder why the fish
would use energy jumping out of the water.
When they do eat, Gulf sturgeons are bottom feeders. They have
barbles - catfish-like whiskers - that help them search sediments
for prey, which they vacuum up with their sucker mouths.
Despite their long history, Gulf sturgeons were listed as
threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1991. The sturgeon
is listed as a species of special concern in the state of
Why are these fish listed? There are many reasons. Their
Gulf-wide habitat has been destroyed or greatly altered. Dams have
prevented the sturgeon from migrating to old spawning areas.
Dredging and other navigation maintenance may have eliminated the
deep holes where sturgeon congregate. They were overfished to the
point where Florida took the unprecedented action in 1984 of
banning harvesting, capture, or "take" to prevent their extinction,
just as we did for Bald Eagles. To make things even tougher for the
sturgeon, it takes many years for the fish to reach breeding age,
slowing population recovery.
FWC "Go Slow"
What FWC has done
When the reported strikes began increasing in 2006, FWC mounted an
intense public awareness campaign to let people know these fish
were present and could injure those boaters enjoying the Suwannee.
The agency message of "Go slow on the Suwannee" for better reaction
time if a sturgeon did leap out of the water was stressed.
Signs were posted at all Suwannee River boat ramps and "Go Slow"
decals were handed out to remind boaters to go slow while traveling
on the river.
FWC personnel coordinated with elected officials from the five
counties in north Florida affected by this issue.
A news release was put out in the spring, alerting boaters that
the fish are migrating back into the Suwannee from the Gulf of
What boaters can do
Go slow: The best course of action is to go slow.
This gives more time to react and if you are hit, the force of the
blow is much less at 10 mph than it is at 35 mph.
Wear your life jacket: Some boaters don't like
wearing a life jacket due to its bulkiness or fit. However, there's
been a revolution in life jacket design, and there are lighter,
more compact and less restrictive models on the market. They
include lightweight over-the-shoulder and belt-type inflatables, in
addition to vest-type life jackets. If you're hurt and unconscious,
a life jacket will help keep you afloat.
Be alert: Pay attention to your surroundings.
If you're in an area where you see sturgeon jumping, slow down and
get closer to the shoreline. The fish tend to stay in the deeper
sections of the river.
Designate an operator: Don't boat and drink. If
you're impaired, you have slower reaction times. If alcohol is
consumed on a vessel, there should be a sober designated
Boat safe: Keep passengers off the bow of the
The Suwannee River is a beautiful part of Florida and should be
enjoyed. The FWC wants boaters to know that these fish are out
there and they do jump. Just be prepared, go slow and have fun.
GULF STURGEON AT A
Common Name: Gulf sturgeon
Scientific Name: Acipenser oxyrinchus
Size: Average 5-6 ft, up to 8 ft. To about 200
Range: Gulf of Mexico, from Florida to
Habitat: Marine and brackish water during the
fall/winter months, freshwater rivers and streams during the
spring/summer months; commonly found in spring-fed tannin-stained
rivers with steep limestone banks and hard bottom areas
Diet: Gulf sturgeon in saltwater feed on
invertebrates - brittle starfish, small crustaceans such as ghost
shrimp and crabs, lampshells, marine worms, and lancelets (a group
of primitive animals, fishlike in appearance, usually found buried
on the ocean floor). In freshwater, Gulf sturgeon generally do not
feed or seek out prey.
Status: Protected. Listed as a threatened
species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 1991. Also
covered by Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1998.
Human interactions are restricted to observation and research; no
harvest is allowed.