An Florida man was injured last week by a jumping sturgeon on the Suwannee River.
Ronald Dick was in a fishing tournament just up river from Manatee Springs when a 4- to 5-foot sturgeon leapt out of the water and into the boat, striking the man, knocking him unconscious, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officers.
Dick was taken to the Joe H. Anderson, Sr. Park and Boat Ramp and transported to the hospital where he was treated for non-life threatening injuries and released.
According to investigators, Dick and his son were traveling about 30 mph when the fish jumped out of the water, impacting the vessel’s windshield and operator.
“This is the first sturgeon incident for 2016,” said Maj. Andy Krause, commander for the FWC’s North Central Region in Lake City. “Boaters need to be aware that these fish are in the Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers. We want people to enjoy the recreational opportunities on the rivers, but we also want people realize these fish do jump and can hurt you.”
During 2015, there were eight injuries and a fatality resulting from sturgeon strikes. There were no strikes reported in 2013 or 2014. Researchers attribute this to the high water levels in the river. Recently, the levels have been dropping and the sturgeon are jumping more frequently.
“Please don’t think this can’t happen to you, especially if the water levels continue to drop. If you are boating on the rivers during the summer months, there’s a good chance you could encounter a sturgeon jumping out of the water,” Krause said.
The FWC recommends going slow to reduce the risk of impact and to have more reaction time if a jumping sturgeon is encountered. All boaters are encouraged to wear their life jacket at all times while on the water and keep passengers off the bow of the boat.
“We certainly don’t want to scare people off the river. This is a beautiful area that everyone should enjoy,” Krause said. “However, please be aware these fish are there and they do jump.”
These collisions aren’t attacks and the fish aren’t targeting boaters. They are simply doing what they have been doing for eons: jumping. Researchers have discovered sturgeon jump for two reasons: to fill their swim bladders to maintain neutral buoyancy and to communicate with other fish.
While it is possible for them to jump anywhere in the river, sturgeon in the Suwannee are more commonly observed jumping where they gather in “holding” areas. Major holding areas in the Suwannee occur above Jack\'s Sandbar; below Manatee Springs; between Fanning Spring and Usher Landing; below Old Town Trestle; below the conjunction of the Santa Fe and Suwannee rivers; near Rock Bluff; and below Anderson Springs. There are a number of less important holding areas as well.
Biologists estimate the annual population of sturgeon in the Suwannee River to be about 10,000, averaging 40 pounds. However a few can exceed 170 pounds. They can leap more than 7 feet out of the water. To add to the seriousness of being hit by one, the fish have five rows of armor-like scutes.
Adult fish spend eight to nine months each year in the river, spawning in May, and then return to the Gulf during the coolest months to feed.
State and federal laws protect sturgeon, just like bald eagles, panthers and sea turtles. Gulf sturgeon cannot be harvested.