…It Can Happen
EVER HEARD OF A SPOONBILL catfish? They are described as having a slick body like a typical catfish but a large paddle for a nose. They are sometimes caught on trotlines, usually in rice canals in the southeastern part of the state.
The fact is they are not a catfish at all. They are a paddlefish, an endangered species.
According to officials with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, the paddlefish is the oldest surviving animal species in North America.
“Females may spawn only once every four to seven years. The paddlefish has only one other relative in the world, another paddlefish that lives in China. Polyodon is Greek for “many teeth” and refers to the paddlefish’s gill rakers, even though they have no teeth at all. The word spathula is Latin for “spatula” or “blade.”
“Paddlefish grow up to 87 inches long and weigh as much as 200 pounds, but most are usually between 10 to 15 pounds. The paddlefish has a gray, shark-like body with a deeply forked tail. Its long, flat, blade-like snout looks like a kitchen spatula and is almost one third of its body’s entire length.
A paddlefish opens its huge mouth when feeding. They resemble sharks not only by shape, but by their skeletons as well. Paddlefish and sharks have skeletons made of cartilage, not bone. They have tiny eyes, no scales, and their gill cover is long and comes to a point.
The State of Texas has protected the paddlefish since 1977. It is considered a threatened species. It is unlawful to catch, kill or harm paddlefish in Texas.
“Paddlefish face a number of problems in Texas,” according to TPWD. “They need large amounts of flowing water in order to reproduce. The construction of dams and reservoirs along Texas’s rivers decreases water flow and interrupts spawning.
“The eggs of paddlefish can be used to make palatable caviar. When caviar becomes difficult, and expensive, to get from Russia paddlefish are often taken illegally (or poached) for their dark, edible eggs. Poachers usually catch them in illegal nets, such as gill nets.
The saltwater equivalent of this unusual fish is the sawfish.
According to Tonya Wiley of Havenworth Coastal Conservation, two species of sawfish were once found in the US, the largetooth sawfish, Pristis pristis, and the smalltooth sawfish, Pristis pectinata.
“The largetooth sawfish was found throughout the Gulf of Mexico but was more common in western Gulf waters of Texas and Mexico,” Wiley said. “The smalltooth sawfish ranged from Texas to New York and was most plentiful in the eastern Gulf waters of Florida. Both sawfish species were considered “abundant” and “common” in the early 1900s. Numerous postcards, photographs, and newspaper articles from that era show fishermen hauling in countless sawfish to boats, docks, and beaches across the country.
“Unfortunately, the largetooth sawfish has not been seen in the United States since the last confirmed instance in 1943,” Wiley added.
“The smalltooth sawfish has fared better and still remains in US waters, though at greatly reduced numbers and geographic range. Today the smalltooth sawfish is found predominately in southwest Florida, notably including Everglades National Park (ENP). The vast expanse of natural habitat within ENP, and limited fishing pressure, probably served as a refuge for sawfish as the population was under constant pressure.”
What happened to these grand fish? What caused them to vanish from much of our coastal waters? The decline was from a combination of three primary factors: (1) overfishing, (2) low reproductive potential, and (3) habitat loss.
Wiley said many sawfish caught recreationally were landed and displayed for photographs, including some massive specimens landed in Texas.
“Others were killed as anglers removed their saws for trophies,” she said. “Commercial fishermen killed sawfish to save their gear, not wanting to cut their valuable nets to remove captured sawfish.
Sawfish were over-exploited for a variety of other reasons. Their meat was used for food, their skin for leather, and their liver oil used in lamps and as a source of vitamin A. Their fins are valued for shark fin soup, their rostral teeth used as artificial spurs in cock-fighting, their cartilage ground-up for traditional medicines, and their saws sold as curios and ceremonial weapons.”
Wiley said one of the best methods of monitoring the population as it recovers is the use of public sawfish encounters.
“If you catch or see a sawfish take a quick photograph of it, estimate its size, note your location, and share the information with scientists,” Wiley asked. “The details of your sightings or catches help to track recovery progress. You can share your information by calling 1-844-4-SAWFISH (1-844-472-9347) or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about historic catches or the location of any old sawfish saws is also appreciated.”
Although its current range does not include Texas, we are including the Gulf sturgeon here. It does appear in nearby Louisiana, and there are rumors of a few Texas catches.
Gulf sturgeon, also known as the Gulf of Mexico sturgeon, are “anadromous” fish. They inhabit coastal rivers from Louisiana to Florida during the warmer months, then move to the Gulf of Mexico, its estuaries and bays in the cooler months.
“Sturgeons are primitive fish characterized by bony plates, or “scutes,” and a hard, extended snout,” according to NOAA officials. They have a “heterocercal” caudal fin. The tail is distinctly asymmetrical with the upper lobe longer than the lower.
Adults range from four to eight feet (1 to 2.5 m) in length, females attain larger sizes than males. They can live for up to 60 years, but average about 20 to 25 years.”
Gulf sturgeons are bottom feeders. They eat primarily macroinvertebrates, including brachiopods, mollusks, worms, and crustaceans. All foraging occurs in brackish or marine waters of the Gulf of Mexico and its estuaries, Sturgeons do not forage in riverine habitat.
According to NOAA, sturgeons migrate into rivers to spawn in the spring. Spawning occurs in areas of clean substrate comprised of rock and rubble. Their eggs are sticky, sink to the bottom, and adhere in clumps to snags, outcroppings, or other clean surfaces.
Gulf sturgeons are anadromous: adults spawn in freshwater and migrate into marine waters in the fall to forage and overwinter. Juvenile Gulf sturgeons stay in the river for about the first two to three years, then return to their natal stream to spawn.
The total number of adult Gulf sturgeon is unknown. However, more than 15,000 adults are estimated in the seven coastal rivers of the Gulf of Mexico. Those are small numbers for a fish that used to be abundant.
If you have ever caught a Gulf sturgeon or any of the above species, email email@example.com. We would love to know about it and turn in any reports to officials who are monitoring these endangered fish.
The Paddlefish Project
—story by CHESTER MOORE