The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is warning boaters to careful around sturgeon on the Suwannee River.
To date, there have been four reported sturgeon encounters this year, according to Maj. Lee Beach, law enforcement commander for the FWC's North Central Region, based in Lake City. Gulf Sturgeon can grow six to eight feet long and weigh over 200 pounds.
"So far, two people have been injured in encounters with these big fish," Beach said. "Even though the injuries weren't life-threatening, that's still two too many people getting hurt."
These are the four encounters this year:
- April 27 - A woman was injured when a sturgeon crashed through her boat's windshield, showering her with glass. She received minor injuries.
- May 14 - Another woman was injured when a sturgeon struck her on the back as she was boating on the river.
- May 16 - A man reported that a sturgeon jumped into his boat, glancing off the windshield. The operator wasn't injured, but his boat sustained approximately $300 worth of damage when the fish broke his windshield.
- May 23 - A sturgeon reportedly jumped into a boat near Fanning Springs Park, causing some minor damage to the boat but no injuries.
In 2006, FWC officials began a public-awareness campaign to alert boaters to the risks of jumping sturgeon.
"And we're continuing that awareness campaign. With all the people who are going to be on the water this weekend, we just want to remind folks to enjoy themselves but be aware of their surroundings," Beach said.
FWC officers will be on duty around the clock this weekend, conducting boating safety checks, watching for impaired operators and educating boaters about the jumping sturgeon on the Suwannee.
What's the best way to avoid a collision?
"We recommend boaters reduce their speed to reduce the risk of impact and to give people more time to react if they do encounter a jumping sturgeon," Beach said. "The FWC also recommends that all boaters wear their life jackets."
The Suwannee River appears to support the largest viable population of Gulf sturgeon. Biologists estimate the annual population at 10,000-14,000 fish, averaging approximately 40 pounds each. Adult fish spend eight to nine months each year in the river spawning and three to four of the coolest months in Gulf waters.
Biologists are unsure why sturgeon jump. Theories include that the fish jump to communicate or as a dominance display.
"I have seen these encounters referred to as 'attacks.' However, these fish are in no way attacking when they jump," said Allen Martin, regional freshwater fisheries biologist. "They are simply doing what they have been doing for millions of years: jumping. They aren't targeting the boaters," he said.
Gulf sturgeon can get quite big, exceeding 8 feet and 200 pounds.
"They have five rows of rock-hard scutes along their sides, back and belly. When sturgeon and boaters collide, the results can be devastating," Martin said.
State and federal laws protect sturgeon, just like bald eagles, panthers and sea turtles.
"These fish can't be harvested," Beach said.
To report sturgeon collisions, call 888-404-FWCC (3922).
"If anyone is involved in an incident with a jumping sturgeon, please report it to the FWC. With the data received, we can get a better overall view of where the fish are jumping and get the word out to the public," Beach said.