By Dave Payne Sr.
“I can’t figure out what in the world this thing is. It looks like a shark, but has this Pinocchio-looking nose.”
That’s what West Virginia fisheries biologist Scott Morrison hears virtually every time someone catches a paddlefish in his district. Anglers rarely hook a paddlefish, but when they do, they call Morrison. By the 1950s, the fish was thought to have been extirpated from the upper Ohio River drainage. They probably had been, but Morrison is getting more calls about them these days.
“They seem to be coming back pretty strongly,” Morrison said. “Anytime somebody catches one, we hear about it. People just want to know what in the world this thing is.”
The paddlefish is one of the world’s most ancient creatures; conservative estimates say the creature has been around for 100 million years. Others say 200 or 300 million years, when what is now the Appalachian Mountains was nothing but a lowland swamp. The fish lives in primary in the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Its only living relative is a similar paddlefish that lives in the Yangtze River in China.
The paddlefish’s natural origin actually predates the emergence of bony fish, Morrison said. The fish has not a single bone in its body. The fish is built on a skeleton of cartilage, like a shark. In fact, the paddlefish looks more like a shark than any of its younger freshwater natives. Paddlefish can grow longer than 5 feet.
The life spans of individual fish lives up to the longevity of the species as a paddlefish can live more than 30 years and can weigh as much as 100 pounds, Morrison said. Its secret to survival might someday warrant some medical study, he said.
“All cartilage fish species are long-living,” Morrison said. “We know, for instance that sharks don’t get cancer. That might have us looking someday at the paddlefish.”
While the paddlefish took whatever catastrophic event killed the dinosaurs in its stride, pollution, locks and dams have taken their toll on paddlefish populations on the upper Ohio River. Paddlefish lay their eggs in strong currents.
Paddlefish embryos mature as the eggs float downstream and require about 30 to 40 miles free floating to hatch, Morrison said. Pools that long are few, especially along the upper portions of major rivers. Paddlefish eggs usually die once caught in the swirling currents on the upriver side of a dam, Morrison said. Pollution also took its toll.
In the 1950s, American rivers reached the highest pollution levels ever, leading biologists to think that paddlefish had been extirpated, said Brett Preston, chief of warm water fisheries for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. Locks and dams prevented paddlefish from emigrating upstream from the lower Ohio River, where sizeable populations still existed.
However, during rare periods of high spring flows, pool levels on the upriver and downriver sides of dams become equal and lock gates are kept open for a few days about every 4 years. Over the next few decades, paddlefish made their way through the open gates and began to reestablish themselves in the upper Ohio.
Wildlife agents in Kentucky report strong populations in the Ohio River, especially in the western part of the state. Pennsylvania agents report paddlefish sightings are few and far between.
Anglers rarely catch paddlefish as they feed by swimming with their mouths, more than a foot in diameter, open and filtering out microscopic organisms. Only when a hook drifts into their mouths are anglers able to catch them. While anglers consider them a curiosity, poachers consider them a currency.
Paddlefish poaching reached its peak in the 1980s, when heavy trade restrictions were placed on Iran, the source of most caviar. Paddlefish roe is similar to Caspian Sea sturgeon caviar and sells for about $100 a pound, Morrison said. Poachers catch them by snagging them.
“Because of international restrictions on the commercial importation of caviar, extreme pressure has been placed on the paddlefish populations of the United States,” said Tom McKay, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agent. McKay estimated the value of paddlefish roe at $250 or more per pound.
The paddlefish is protected in West Virginia and several other states, which of course doesn’t bother poachers unless they get caught. As the paddlefish roe are transported across state lines or exported out of the country, federal agencies often are heavily involved in investigating paddlefish poaching, McKay said.
Two years ago, state and federal agents documented 120 wildlife violations from a single eight-man paddlefish-poaching ring in Oklahoma. Each charge can carry a fine of up to $250,000 and five years in a federal prison.
The longnose gar hasn’t been around as long as the paddlefish, but still it dominated the water while dinosaurs thrived on land. The gar is a very bony fish, with narrow, teeth-filled mouths more than a foot long. They usually remain motionless at the surface and eat small fish that swim beside them. Kids throw rocks at them and they don’t move. They are fearless creatures. After all, they’ve been through nearly as much as the paddlefish.
Longnose gar can easily grow longer than four feet and are widely dispersed from major rivers to deep creeks. Its southern counterpart, the alligator gar can grow even larger. Usually, they are seen at the surface. While longnose gar may sometimes take a lure, anglers find it difficult to imbed a hook into their bony jaws. Gar are especially bony fish and people rarely eat them.
Some people, however, consider them a nuisance and kill them out of hand, thinking the gar eats too many gamefish. However, their mouths are too small to easily eat gamefish. Mostly they dine on minnows. “Gar really don’t have much effect on gamefish populations,” Morrison said. “After all, they have coexisted for millions of years.”
Morrison said just as people overestimate the gar’s impact on gamefish, they also overestimate gar populations. “People usually get an unrealistic idea of just how many gar there are in a stretch of river. If you look over a bridge, you might see 15 gar, but you’re probably seeing every gar in the area,” Morrison said.
Gars often lazily drift at the surface because they are breathing air. While it has gills for dissolving oxygen from water like all fish, gars also have a primitive lung for breathing air. That’s one secret to the gar’s longevity as a species. Even when oxygen levels dip low enough to kill nearly every other fish in a body of water, the gar can derive oxygen from the air.