Are Sturgeon Dangerous? (Surprising Facts & Incidents)

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Are Sturgeon Dangerous? (Facts & Documented Incidents)

Sturgeon swimming
It can feel surreal to see a sturgeon in real life due to its prehistoric appearance! Boris Dzhingarov, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Due to their elusiveness, wild sturgeons are often regarded with intrigue and caution. The once-in-a-blue-moon sightings of them don’t reveal too much about their behavior and general characteristics. Belonging to the most critically endangered family (Acipenseridae) of freshwater fish, these creatures are often misunderstood. As they look like prehistoric animals, sightings of them often feel surreal. It’s no wonder why they are both feared and highly sought-after.

Sturgeons are characterized by their bony dorsal plates, pointy snouts, and shark-like coloration. They tend to reside in the benthic reaches of lakes and rivers. Some species may migrate into brackish, estuarine, or coastal regions to fulfill their life cycle. Outside of their spawning periods, they usually keep to themselves and are most active during twilight, which is when they feed. In winter and summer, which are respectively feeding and fasting periods, they may form congregations.

Native to the sub-arctic and temperate freshwater bodies of Europe, North America, and northern Asia, there are around 25 – 30 extant species of these living fossils. Though their wild population rates are dwindling, they are increasingly coming into contact with humans as anthropogenic industries expand their reach. That being said, any dangerous encounters are often accidental because sturgeons have no biological interest in deliberately harming humans.

Sturgeons as Toothless & Gentle Giants

Sturgeon eating fish
Sturgeons don’t have teeth and like to feed on small fish, crustaceans, and worms. Daniel Döhne, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Though predatory, sturgeons are not aggressive fish. They have electroreceptors that are similar to those of sharks, but they don’t normally target vibrations and electrical impulses from within the water column or on the surface. They usually lie in wait on the floors of lakes or rivers. Their mouths are located on the ventral region of their bodies as they have evolved to feed on prey items that are directly below them. Sturgeons swimming on the water’s surface, as sharks do, are somewhat out of the ordinary.

It’s virtually impossible for a sturgeon to consume prey that are much larger than their maximum mouth gape. They simply aren’t equipped with the means to consume their food in chunks. Rather, they have to swallow them whole due to their lack of teeth. They catch prey by protruding their lips and enlarging their gape, which reorients the flow of water towards their mouth. Their favorite types of food include small fish, crustaceans, and worms.

Collisions with Sturgeons

Gulf sturgeon in river
There are sometimes collisions with Gulf sturgeons as they migrate upriver from the Gulf of Mexico to spawn. Photo by Joseph E. Hightower

Sturgeons won’t intentionally ram into boats, attempt to jump onto them, or lurk around them. If they do so, their behavior could be an indication of something larger and more problematic – such as a deteriorating habitat. Waste deposits and an influx of eroded materials sink onto the bottom reaches of freshwater basins, compromising conditions in those areas. Poor water quality and low oxygen levels may force these fish to venture towards the surface, where they may have more access to clean, clear water.

Low water levels or changing tides can also cause sturgeons to leap out of the water. This has been observed with the Gulf sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi), which migrates upriver from the Gulf of Mexico to spawn. These fish can grow more than 8 feet (2.4 meters) long and weigh up to hundreds of pounds due to their hefty skeletons. One swimming in full force toward an unsuspecting boat can cause some damage. Getting hit or struck by a particularly large one might possibly feel like colliding with a small car.

Gulf sturgeons usually forego food consumption as they make their way upstream, driven by the sole purpose of breeding. Collision is then purely accidental and is in no way due to a rogue appetite or an attempt to attack people. It’s also important to keep in mind that, as these fish are highly sensitive to vibrations, a boat’s motors may disorient them.

“Flying” Sturgeons

Beluga sturgeon
Although beluga sturgeons can be more than 10 feet long, they are very rarely involved in accidental collisions! あおもりくま、Aomorikuma, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Gulf sturgeons naturally occur throughout the Mississippi River, Tampa Bay, Suwannee River (Florida), and Lake Ponchartrain (Louisiana). In these areas, there have been instances of accidental and near-fatal collisions with these fish. They have even earned a reputation for being a giant type of flying fish due to their tendency to leap out of the water.

These “flying” sturgeons have been reported to leap up to 7 feet clear of the water’s surface! Some leapers, particularly those in the Suwannee River of Florida, have caused injuries to boatmen. The injuries are usually due to the fish landing inside the boat or fishers falling overboard. There are some unfortunate cases of persons being close to or within the trajectory of a jumper. Imagine getting hit by an enormous, bony fish that is several times your own weight!

Sadly, some news outlets may frame sturgeons as fish that should be feared – sometimes even comparing them to sharks. They may go so far as to state that these leaping sturgeons can weigh up to a ton, but this certainly isn’t the case. Nonetheless, sturgeons weighing in at 300 – 500+ pounds (136 – 227 kg) have been captured in the Mississippi River and in Louisiana waters.

Though lake sturgeons (A. fulvescens) and beluga sturgeons (Huso huso) can grow to lengths of more than 10 feet (3 m), these species are seldom ever associated with accidental collisions. Moreover, these larger species aren’t specifically known for leaping out of the water. It’s possible that they have caused injuries as well, but visual identification of species would be incredibly difficult in the heat of a collision. Note that the Gulf sturgeon is actually a threatened subspecies of the Atlantic sturgeon (A. oxyrinchus), so it may also be referred to as the latter.

Documented Sturgeon Incidents 

People in a boat on the Suwannee River
Many of the most news-worthy sturgeon incidents have happened in the Suwannee River (pictured). Tristan Loper / CC BY-SA 2.0

Dozens of encounters with North American sturgeons have resulted in injuries. Since 2006, most of these occurred in Florida’s waters. State institutions estimate that their waters are home to about 10,000 sturgeons (including the Atlantic sturgeon, Gulf sturgeon, and shortnose sturgeon), so encounters during the spawning periods are not all that surprising. Collisions in this area are the most well documented. Some of the most news-worthy incidents are listed below.

  • April 2006, Suwannee River – A leaping sturgeon struck a woman directly in the face and injured her severely. She required several facial reconstruction surgeries to recover. This freak event spurred the need for widespread awareness and documentation of sturgeon-related accidents.
  • Summer 2007, Suwanee River – Seven strikes due to leaping sturgeons injured a total of 9 people. Some of them were aware of the risks and of the possibility of strikes but never expected to be victims. This season was the first time international media covered the accidents.
  • May 2011, Suwannee River – 6 boaters were injured during sturgeon encounters, which took place during the fish’ migration into the river.
  • June 2012, Suwannee River – A 60 to 70-pound leaping sturgeon caused a woman to fall out of a 17-foot boat and suffer from multiple injuries.
  • 2015, Suwannee River and Sante Fe River – Five direct strikes with leaping sturgeons caused at least 8 injuries and 1 fatality.

In these areas, sturgeons usually jumped into the air above their “holding” areas, which are where they would congregate. The jumping behavior is speculated to be some type of communication or a means to expand the swim bladder and remain buoyant. Strikes aren’t reported every year and have supposedly dropped in frequency in recent years (from 2018 onwards).

Fatalities Associated with Sturgeons

Sturgeon jumping
There are many parts of the Suwannee River where sturgeon jumping rates are high. Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-ND 2.0

Suwannee River finally saw its first sturgeon-related death in 2015, when a leaping sturgeon fatally struck a 5-year-old girl. Two of her family members also suffered injuries, but they were able to recover from them. The sturgeon reportedly weighed 200 pounds. It jumped from an area close to Fanning Springs, which is a hotspot for sturgeons.

Other areas where sturgeon jumping rates are high, as their “holding areas” are suspected to be there, include parts of the river that are close to Manatee Springs, Jack’s Sandbar, Old Town Trestle, Usher Landing, Anderson Springs, and Rock Bluff. Patrol officers began cautioning private boaters in these areas after news of the fatality spread. Though non-aggressive, sturgeons eventually gained a reputation for being fearsome monster fish in these areas.

How to Avoid Dangerous Collisions

Boat on river
If you’re driving a boat in Florida’s rivers, you should go slow to reduce the impact of any potential sturgeon collisions that may happen. Michael John Button / CC BY 2.0

The fatality caused the Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) of Florida to launch a campaign for public awareness. They began spreading brochures about sturgeon behavior and potential hotspots for leapers. They also posted cautionary signs in Florida’s rivers to remind boaters to go slow and be wary of sturgeons.

Prior to the annual upriver migration of Gulf sturgeons, the FWC also sends out press releases. They intend to partner with institutions that can make use of sonar energy to trace the movements of sturgeons in their waters and pinpoint their holding areas. To avoid dangerous collisions with sturgeons, boaters are encouraged to do the following:

  • In sturgeon hotspots, reduce the boat’s speed so that collisions don’t have as heavy an impact on the boat or on struck individuals.
  • Avoid standing on the bow or right along the sides of a boat. If a sturgeon does jump and strike boaters, they are less likely to fall out of the boat if they are seated or in a secure area.
  • Regularly scan the water and surroundings for signs of sturgeons. If leapers are spotted, avoid the area or take extra caution.
  • Keep a life jacket on at all times while on any type of water vehicle. Even expert swimmers are in danger of drowning if they are knocked unconscious by a jumping sturgeon.
  • Consult the local conservation unit for ideal routes to avoid sturgeons. Remember to ask about peak times for sturgeon migration. If you intend to visit rivers with sturgeons for recreational purposes, consider traveling on dates before or after the migration run.
  • Have a designated and well-experienced boater man the vessel in sturgeon hotspots. This person should ideally stay alert and sober throughout the trip. Passengers are, of course, encouraged to have fun and admire the scenery, but they must be prepared for collisions. They should update their emergency numbers and keep a fully charged mobile with them at all times.

Collisions are not just dangerous for humans; they can threaten the lives of sturgeons as well. Any efforts to avoid them should help keep wild populations intact. Just as boaters may be shocked and inadvertently struck by leaping sturgeons, loud and rapidly-moving water vehicles may confuse and injure these fish. At the end of the day, the collective actions of man are much more threatening to sturgeons than their natural behavior will ever be to us.

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