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Caddo Comeback

Threatened paddlefish are released in East Texas as part of an effort to enhance flows.

A prehistoric fish is being returned to one of the most timeless lakes in Texas.

On the cold, overcast morning of March 4, scientists and observers gathered at Caddo Lake in East Texas to release 47 juvenile paddlefish, equipped with implanted transmitters for tracking over the following six months. More than just a fish release, this experiment is part of a larger five-year effort to protect and enhance flows in the Caddo Lake watershed.

The oldest-surviving fish species in North America, paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) have lived in North American waters for more than 300 million years, but they’re rarely found in Caddo Lake anymore. The fish, long listed as threatened, began to disappear after changes were made to the watershed, particularly the construction of the Lake O’ the Pines dam in 1959 on Big Cypress Bayou. Since paddlefish need pulses of water in order to reproduce, the interruption caused spawning to stop.

“Lake O’ the Pines has been great as a flood control structure. It’s provided lots of water supply for many of the cities,” says Caddo Lake Institute’s Rick Lowerre. “Now we’re just asking to add a third feature, which is release for fish and wildlife.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with the Caddo Lake Institute, the Nature Conservancy, the Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for the project.

“Many groups have been working on mimicking these natural flows,” says Tim Bister, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries biologist. “If we just came and put paddlefish back in the river with nothing else happening, chances of their success would be low. There are a lot of pieces to this project, and a lot of different groups working on it.”

Paddlefish can grow up to 7 feet long, weigh as much as 200 pounds (but are usually 10 to 15 pounds) and live up to 30 years. These released fish, raised at a national fish hatchery in Oklahoma, are only 18 months old and 2 to 3 feet long. They resemble sharks in appearance, and, like sharks, they have no scales and have a skeleton made of cartilage instead of bone. But paddlefish have no teeth — they feed by swimming along with their mouth wide open, scooping up plankton.

The public can follow the movements of the paddlefish in the watershed on a Web page (www.caddolakeinstitute.us/paddlefish_tracking.html) mapping their locations. The tracking data is recovered from three receivers and is posted several times a month on the map. In areas where there are no receivers, TPWD staff will track the fish by boat.
Students in 20 area schools are studying the project closely, “adopting” paddlefish and raising money for the project.

“I think the paddlefish is the means to an end,” says Robert Speight of the Northeast Texas Municipal Water District. “We like to see the paddlefish in here, obviously. But that in turn helps a lot of other species, a lot of other things in the environment, so it’s a win-win.”

If the fish survive and thrive, it will mean that the ecosystem is returning to a healthier state, thanks to better decisions about dam release. At Caddo, cypress trees also don’t thrive in the backwater areas without the proper amount and timing of flow.

The paddlefish release project had been delayed since its inception in 2011 because of drought.

“It’s really gratifying to see this day come,” Speight says. “We’ve all been working at it for many years. It’s just a good day for the fish, and a good day for East Texas and for Caddo.”

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