- Associated Press - Monday, November 9, 2015

YANKTON, S.D. (AP) - A small wake broke from the back of the watercraft, and a 125-foot net was slowly released from the front end.

It’s a routine job duty for Sam Stukel, 40, a Gregory native and South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks fisheries biologist.

Stukel, based in Yankton, spends a majority of his time on the Missouri River researching the pallid sturgeon, a species that’s been on the endangered list since 1990.

During a recent October morning, Stukel and two other GF&P; fisheries biologists worked up and down the Missouri River near Yankton in search of pallid sturgeon.

“You never know what you might learn about a species when you study it, whether it’s some chemical it produces that could be a cure for a human disease,” Stukel told The Daily Republic (https://bit.ly/1QdJVBC ). “Or perhaps having it missing will cause a chain reaction that will ultimately lead to other species to have problems. It’s important to try to keep things from disappearing when you can. Extinction is forever.”

While there were no pallid sturgeon catches on this day, Oct. 15, the GF&P; biologists - Stukel, Nate Loecker, and Jason Kral - netted a pallid sturgeon the previous day.

“It had been months since we’d got one before that,” Stukel said.

Stukel calls a pallid sturgeon “a very unique fish.”

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the pallid sturgeon is a large fish known only to occur in the Missouri River, the Mississippi River, downstream of the Missouri River, and the lower Yellowstone River.

“The species is threatened through habitat modification, apparent lack of natural reproduction, commercial harvest, and hybridization in parts of its range,” says the federal register report that lists the species as endangered.

They are listed as a bottom-dwelling, slow-growing fish that feed primarily on small fish and aquatic insects. With a long snout and whiskers that dangle, the pallid sturgeon has existed since the days of the dinosaurs. Once they get to be about 3 feet long, they prefer to feed on other fish and become a top-level predator, Stukel said.

The species, when mature, averages between 30 and 60 inches in length and 60 to 80 pounds. Stukel said they can have an average life span similar to a human, living up to a century.

Many pallid sturgeon, Stukel said, may not spawn until they’re 7 to 9 years old. If they spawn, it might take three or four years before doing it again.

“The one thing about this fish is their pace of life,” Stukel said. “They live a long time, they move slow and travel long distances. Nothing happens in a hurry with this species.”

Because they are endangered, they must be released if they are caught by an angler.

Stukel graduated from Gregory High School in 1994, but his love for outdoor activities started well before that.

“I was just crazy about fishing as an elementary school kid,” he said. “I was almost obsessive about it. Bluegills, bass, carp, it didn’t matter. Anything you could catch on a hook and line, that was my thing.”

Stukel attended Mount Marty College in Yankton after high school, and later got his master’s degree from South Dakota State University.

When the job with the GF&P; opened, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I had never seen a pallid sturgeon in person,” he said. “But I took the job and had my eyes opened to this rare animal and the problems it faced.”

Since starting with the GF&P;, Stukel has seen the population of pallid sturgeon near Yankton fluctuate dramatically. In 2005, Stukel and his staff landed one pallid sturgeon all year, but in 2012 that number jumped to around 345. This year, they’ve netted about 30.

Stukel said the area is a great place to study the species because pallid sturgeon swim to the area below Gavins Point Dam - which is just west of Yankton - to spawn in the spring. It’s a non-channelized portion of the river that rarely gets more than 15 feet deep.

“This 59-mile stretch of river is very unique because it still resembles what Lewis and Clark saw 210 years ago,” Stukel said. “I call it ‘a living museum.’”

About 10,000 pallid sturgeon are stocked into the Missouri River each year, Stukel said, with about 2,000 of those going in the Yankton area. The Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery in Yankton is one of the primary sources of pallid sturgeon for stocking, and each of those fish is tagged or marked for the biologists to study.

Stukel said his crew is one of seven from Montana to St. Louis along the Missouri River that tracks and studies pallid sturgeon. While Stukel did not have an estimated number of pallid sturgeon that are left, he said the goal is to have a self-sustaining population that does not need to be consistently stocked.

The problem with pallid sturgeon being able to naturally reproduce, Stukel said, is they’re dying at a young age, which is why the species is not self-sustaining. The stocked fish are put into the water when they’re several months old, which allows them to withstand the current.

“The most clear thing that’s been found, not only by our crew but by everyone, the main problem for this species is a period between the age of two days and 18 days, that’s when they raise up in the water and they drift,” Stukel said. “That’s when they’re dying. That’s the bottleneck and the whole issue.”

Stukel, Loecker and Kral have worked together for nine years, spending an average of four to five days per week in the boat. With protective gloves on their hands and waders keeping them dry, they toss out nets that drift along the Missouri River’s floor.

As they retrieve the net, a number of fish species present themselves, including walleye, suckers, catfish and shovelnose sturgeon.

“Knowing that you have quality people gives you a lot of confidence and lets you focus on the work you do,” Stukel said. “It makes us efficient and it makes us safe on a part of a river that can be dangerous for inexperienced boaters.”

The crew spends about 70 percent of its time working on the pallid sturgeon project and studying how habitat loss is affecting the species.

Stukel acknowledged he may study the species his entire career and never see it rebound to be a self-sustaining fish. Though, as a fisheries biologist, he may be able to achieve goals by gathering baseline data about the population to determine how to improve pallid sturgeon in the future.

“It’s hard to be patient, both as a biologist and for the public with the money we’re spending,” he said. “We have to think about the long term with this species. It’s not going to happen overnight.”


Information from: The Daily Republic, https://www.mitchellrepublic.com

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