An Ancient Fish Returns to Texas' Caddo Lake
Mar 05, 2014 | 1567 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print

JEFFERSON, Texas, March 5 – Today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) released close to 50 paddlefish into Caddo Lake on the Texas-Louisiana border and the river that forms it, Big Cypress Bayou. The release is an experiment, designed to provide data that could inform a future plan for a large-scale stocking at Caddo Lake. While paddlefish populations are faring better in some states, the fish remains listed as a species of concern under the Endangered Species Act and is rarely found in Texas.

Paddlefish can live up to 30 years, grow to 7 feet and weigh 200 pounds. They are among the oldest surviving fish species in North America, having lived in rivers and bayous throughout the Mississippi River Basin since the days of the dinosaur. Researchers believe the paddlefish in Caddo Lake and its tributaries fell into steep decline or were extirpated over the years following the construction of an upstream dam in 1959 to create Lake O’ the Pines on Big Cypress Bayou.

Restoring Flows and Fish

“The dam changed the natural flow patterns, including the high flows or ‘spring pulses’ that provided paddlefish and other fish species a cue to move to spawning sites and foraging habitat the high water made accessible,” said Pete Diaz, a USFWS fish biologist.

Recording Artist Don Henley, who is founder and chairman of the board of the Caddo Lake Institute, said the paddlefish experiment is possible because of the hard work of many partners to restore flows to Caddo lake, including The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Northeast Texas Municipal Water District and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.  

“Caddo Lake is a special place,” Henley said. “It’s a ‘Wetland of International Importance’ under the 1973 Ramsar Convention, a treaty now signed by more than 160 nations. But to keep it a healthy and ecologically productive system, we need flows that better mimic the natural patterns of high and low conditions.”

Since 2004, the partners in the process have worked together to change the release pattern from Lake O' the Pines for downstream fish and wildlife habitat and wetlands in and above Caddo Lake.  Lake O' the Pines is operated by the Army Corps of Engineers and much of the water in the lake is owned by the Northeast Texas Municipal Water District.  

Robert Speight with the NETMWD said the experimental release of the paddlefish will help determine if the altered flows provide the intended benefits for fish and wildlife habitat. “These paddlefish go back to prehistoric times, and seeing them return is wonderful. But the lessons we learn here will be beneficial to many other species as well,” he said.

Andy Warner, associate director of water resources for The Nature Conservancy, said the flow restoration at Caddo Lake is part of the Sustainable Rivers Project, a nationwide effort led by the Corps and The Nature Conservancy. “Through the Sustainable Rivers Project, we are demonstrating cost-effective ways to modernize dam operations that produce more benefits—like improved water quality and enhanced wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities—without sacrificing flood protection or water supply,” he said.

“We are using measured successes here and at other demonstration sites to help guide similar efforts at other Corps dams, which number nearly 700 across the nation,” said Marcia Hackett, senior environmental planner with the Corps.

Tim Bister, an inland fisheries biologist with TPWD, said the dam also changed the way sediment was carried and deposited, which essentially covered many gravel beds where paddlefish and other species typically spawn. Because of this, his department was among the partners that worked with the Corps in 2008 to restore a 1,500-foot-long gravel bar or shoal in Big Cypress Bayou near Jefferson.

“The new flows will help aquatic species access the shoal, which should benefit some 35 fish species, including paddlefish,” Bister said. “Like many fish, paddlefish spawn in the same place generation after generation. We hope the fish released today and in the future will do the same.” 

Advanced Technology Behind the Release & Monitoring

The paddlefish released at and near Caddo Lake were raised at the Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery in Oklahoma. They are approximately 18 months old and 2-3 feet in length, and each have a surgically implanted radio transmitter with a unique signal that will allow scientists to track the movement of individual fish. Three stationary radio signal receivers in the area will enable the tracking and monitoring of the fish for at least six months. Project partners will also conduct searches in boats at least once a month between March and August. General information about the movements of the fish will be available to the public online at www.CaddoLakeInstitute.us.

A final report of the experimental paddlefish release is scheduled for completion in April 2015.

Partners in the effort include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Caddo Lake Institute, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, The Nature Conservancy, Northeast Texas Municipal Water District, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Cypress Valley Navigation District. 

Education & Celebration

The Collins Academy of Jefferson, Texas, has taken the lead to provide teacher training and educational materials for schools so that students can track the paddlefish. “Our aim is for students to learn how modern science is helping restore historical water flows and enhance wildlife habitat to support the return of this ancient species,” said Gary Endsley with the Collins Academy. “Our goal is to help students understand the value of healthy watersheds and related fish and wildlife habitats.”

Several of the project partners are also planning a paddlefish festival in Jefferson May 8-9. Details will be available online at caddolakeinstitute.us.

 

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