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Posted 4/12/2013

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By Eileen Williamson, Public Affairs Specialist
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District

The boats don’t sport names like the Northwestern or the Wizard, and the crews aren’t as scruffy as found on the Discovery Channel, but the camaraderie and friendly competition of Pallid Sturgeon Broodstock efforts has a similar, yet much tamer feel.

Each year, personnel from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District participate with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to assist with an effort to collect and ship reproductive-ready pallid sturgeon to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hatchery near Gavins Point Dam or Missouri Department of Conservation’s Blind Pony State Fish Hatchery.

This year, a few members of the District’s 2013 Leadership Development Program class participated in the effort. LDP participant Josh Melliger, an engineer in the Hydrologic Engineering branch, participated in the  effort in 2010. When the call for volunteers came in February, he led the charge to recruit members of the LDP class.

The LDP class is studying the Missouri River, its operations and its authorized purposes as a class project to develop a scope of work and storyboard for the development of a web-based simulator to help communicate the complexities of managing the river and balancing its authorized purposes.

Fish and wildlife is one of the eight Congressionally authorized purposes for which the Corps operates the Missouri River reservoir system. When operational decisions are made, impacts to each of the purposes is considered and weighed before adjustments to operations are implemented.

“Our participation in the broodstock effort helped us gain a better understanding of the river, Corps projects along the river and the river’s eight authorized purposes,” said LDP participant and Realty Specialist Candace Akins.

Crews launch from Plattsmouth and Nebraska City, Neb. Each day begins with the distribution of life jackets and a briefing that ensures water safety is given top priority,

Once on the river, each crew checks the trotlines set by the previous day’s crews. Each line is 210 feet long with hooks every 5 feet, totaling 40 hooks per line.

The boat led by Dane Pauley and Derek Tomes, from NGPC pulled in 10 lines with the potential of 40 fish per line. With each line, hooks are removed, cleaned and stored for re-use and the fish are placed into a water tank until the line is in. Once the hooks are stored, the ropes rolled up and anchors and buoys put away, attention turns to the fish.

Volunteers learn how to differentiate between the shovelnose and pallid sturgeon, to look for tags and signs a sturgeon has come from a hatchery, how to measure and weigh the sturgeon and to measure the other fish that are pulled in. Unfortunately, it was a slow day with only 45 fish brought in.

Crews communicated throughout the day, jabbing each other on their counts. Still, Pauley and Tomes’ boat brought in the most fish for the day including several shovelnose sturgeon - one that had been tagged, a few channel catfish, a smallmouth buffalo fish and one pallid sturgeon.

Each fish is measured, the sturgeon are weighed and the pallid sturgeon and tagged shovelnose sturgeon are scanned to read their tags so NGPC can log specific details related to the fish into a tracking database. Most pallid sturgeon in the river come from hatcheries so they are tagged at the hatchery and information is kept in a database tracking their growth progress along with water depths and flow rates where they are caught.

The pallid sturgeon measured 585 millimeters long and weighed 735 grams – not big enough to be reproduction-ready. It was returned to the river with the rest of the catch. A pallid should be at least 800 mm long before it is shipped to the hatchery. Three pallids were shipped to the hatchery this day, one of which weighed 13.9 pounds, the heaviest ever caught by NGPC.

This year, NGPC are also tracking four reproduction-ready female pallid sturgeon that have been tagged with sonic telemetry tags. As Pauley and Tomes’ crew headed up the river to break for lunch, a couple more crews were headed down, following the signal of one of the female pallids.

Following lunch, the crew baited the 400 hooks and reset the 10 lines between the mouth of the Platte River and where U.S. Highway 34 crosses the Missouri River – using tips from the team tracking the female pallid.  Pauley and Tomes’ brought in 62 fish the next day, but no pallids.

The pallid sturgeon is often considered a fish from the time of dinosaurs - 70 million years ago – and is on the list of federally recognized endangered species. The pallid sturgeon is found along the Yellowstone, Missouri and the lower Mississippi rivers. They are white to silver in color, a little lighter than their shovelnose cousin, and can grow to measure up to 60 inches long and weigh up to 85 pounds. However, pallid sturgeons in the reach of the Missouri River south of Gavins Point rarely exceed 12 lbs.

The two-week effort began April 1 with 181 pallids caught as of April 11, and 31 shipped to the hatcheries.