Biologist reports logo Paddlefish Restoration in Pennsylvania

Assessment Results for 2005

Paddlefish are native to the Ohio and Allegheny River systems in PA. However, a combination of extremely poor water quality and the lock and dam navigation system lead to paddlefish demise in the Three Rivers after 1919. Water quality recovered substantially in the Three Rivers after about 1980 and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission began a paddlefish restoration program in 1991. An average of 6,800 paddlefish have been stocked annually. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service State Wildlife Grant was secured to evaluate the paddlefish population status and relative abundance during 2005 and 2006.

During spring and summer 2005, researchers from California University of Pennsylvania successfully captured three paddlefish from Commonwealth waters. This was the first intensive effort to capture paddlefish with sampling gear since the program began in 1991. On May 12, 2005 a 32 lb. fish was recovered below Dashields Lock and Dam on the Ohio River near Leetsdale, PA in a large-mesh gillnet (pictures below). Further inspection by Area Fisheries Manager Rick Lorson confirmed that this fish was a mature female – perhaps 8-12 years old.

32-pound paddlefish 32-pound paddlefish
A 32-pound paddlefish from the Ohio River
Photos--Lora Belback
Checking for a coded wire tag
Checking for a coded wire tag in a paddlefish
Photo--Lora Belback
On May 17, 2005 another paddlefish was captured below Lock and Dam #3 on the Allegheny River near Harmarville, PA. This fish, weighing in at 20 lbs. was evaluated in the field, checked for coded wire tags, re-tagged (PA participates in a Mississippi River Basin paddlefish tagging project), and released within minutes of recovery. Researchers believed this fish to be a male.
20-pound paddlefish
20-pound paddlefish from the Allegheny River
Photo--Casey Bartkust
Tagging a paddlefish
Tagging paddlefish before release
Photo--Lora Belback
During surveys on the Monongahela River in late June, a third paddlefish was captured which is of particular significance because the PA Fish and Boat Commission historically has not stocked this river. The location of its capture was at least three lock and dam chambers from the nearest stocking location on either the Allegheny or Ohio Rivers. This fish weighed only 2.5 lbs., but had an extremely full belly. Gut analysis by biologists at Horn Point Laboratory of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science confirmed the presence of a mix of zooplankton species indicative of an abundant food resource for this filter-feeding species.
Example of paddlefish food item
Example of food item of paddlefish about the size of a pencil point
Paddlefish food item magnified
Paddlefish food item shown magnified 50 times
Photo--Adam Frederick
Another example of paddlefish food
Another example of paddlefish food
2.5-pound paddlefish from the Mon River
2.5-pound paddlefish from the Mon River
Photo--Greg Sofranko

Efforts during 2005 to capture paddlefish provided important new information about these secretive fishes. We now have evidence that there are paddlefish in the Three Rivers capable of reproduction; that we have fishes moving among the various lock and dams within the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers; and that we have an abundant and complex zooplankton community as food for the paddlefish. Sampling in 2006 will begin in early spring to provide additional information regarding paddlefish population status and abundance. Results of this research will be incorporated into a Comprehensive Paddlefish Management Plan for PA. The ultimate goals of these efforts are to establish a naturally reproducing population and consider a limited sport fishery at some point in the future.

-- Prepared by Rick Lorson, Area 8 Fisheries Manager and Dr. David Argent, California University of PA

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