- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 8, 2004

Old acquaintance Craig Springer, who works for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Division of Fisheries in Albuquerque, N.M., recently saw our Sunday feature about Atlantic sturgeon and how private industry, the state of Maryland and the federal government have joined hands to restore the species to its former glory.

“I’m happy to hear about the sturgeon program,” he said, “but I think your Beltway readers will be surprised and delighted to learn about another fish, a species that can grow 13 feet long and weigh 300 pounds and is still around — for now.”

What Springer is talking about is a prehistoric looking critter, filled with teeth and looking, well, looking like an alligator — hence its name, alligator gar.

Gars are not strangers to our own Potomac River. We have shortnose and longnose gars thriving in the backwater coves and marshes of the river. (Watch out, Mr. Snakehead. Gars live in the same territory that you prefer and they grow much larger and meaner than you do.)

But the largest of the family, the alligator gar, doesn’t hang around here. It occurs in the bayou waters of Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina, maybe even Tennessee and Kentucky. The rub lies in the fact that this great American creature’s existence is threatened. Alligator gar populations have greatly diminished over the years.

The Fish & Wildlife Service, however, is coming to the tooth-laden character’s rescue. Federal biologists want to turn the downward slide around.

“We got them on station at Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery,” said Springer in reference to a 75-year-old federal hatchery in Tishomingo, Okla., where fisheries biologists are learning to understand the species’ habitat needs, their biology and along the way hoping to successfully induce spawning in gars that reside at the facility.

Why worry about raising a fish that has no real commercial value and certainly doesn’t arouse the ardor of millions of sports anglers as bass, trout and stripers do?

Retired oilman John Bruno, who lives near Tishomingo and knows a thing or two about the gator gar, said, “I’m certain that this fish fills a niche in nature. God put them here for some reason and if the species is endangered, it’s a good thing to restore it.”

Bruno is of the firm belief that native species have every right to exist and thrive. “I like to see indigenous species do well,” he says.

Meanwhile, Springer points out that when fossil fuels were still wet forests, alligator gars were swimming about.

“This primitive piscivore survived whatever KO’d the dinosaurs,” he wrote in a recent article. “They are, essentially, swimming dinosaurs. Fossil records of alligator gar are not too unlike the animal found today.”

Alligator gars can actually breathe air when water oxygen levels drop severely. But as Springer said, they can’t face a loss of habitat, which may be the culprit when looking into reasons for their decline.

“The USFWS is addressing it in concert with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. That’s why we have alligator gar at Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery,” said Springer, pointing out that biologists there also try to find ways to implant radio transmitters under their thick, armor-like scales. Radio-tagged fish in the wild could help a great deal.

“[They] could yield a wealth of information on a fish that’s in decline,” said Kerry Graves, manager of the Tishomingo facility. “The radios will give us a way to learn what specific habitat they need — plus learn their habits like seasonal migration patterns.”

One thing we know for sure: The alligator gar is not harmful to gamefish. It might go after rough fish, such as the carp, a foreign invader that could stand some population control. And we know that it grows to gargantuan sizes. The world record is a 279-pounder that came out of the Rio Grande River.

Now wouldn’t you rather catch a behemoth like an American alligator gar than a little old carp that doesn’t even belong here?

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com

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