Researchers plan groundbreaking sensor to save sturgeon

Researchers plan groundbreaking sensor to save sturgeon

By Trey Braunecker


The university is conducting research with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to try and save an endangered species of fish native to the Midwest.

Jim Garvey, a zoology professor and director of Center for Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences, said he has been working on his research program for almost 13 years. He said the focus of his research is to help save the endangered pallid sturgeon by understanding its habitat needs, what population aspects of the sturgeon make it vulnerable to extinction and how the university can work with the government to help increase the species’ population.


Garvey said unlike many other species of sturgeon, which tend to live in the ocean during their adult lifecycle, the pallid sturgeon is a landlocked fish and does not migrate from its rivers.

“The species that we are working with actually live their entire life in the waters of the U.S.,” he said. “They live in the Mississippi River, the Missouri River and Ohio River, so they do not move to the ocean when they are mature.”

Garvey said because of the rarity of the fish, research on the pallid sturgeon has proven to be a tedious and difficult process for his team.

“It has been a long slog because of the low population of the sturgeon,” he said. “It is very hard to catch and when you catch it, you try to do everything you can with it to understand the species thoroughly.”

Most recently, Garvey and his team have been trying to raise money to pioneer a new technology for a sensor that will detect when, where and how pallid sturgeon are spawning, Bill Hintz, a doctoral student in fisheries from Waseca, Minn., said.

Hintz said with the information gathered from the sensors, essentially tags, conservationists can find where the pallid sturgeon spawn and what kind of conditions need to be restored in the river to help increase their population.

“In short, the tags monitor the physiological parameters of the fish so we can understand when they are going to spawn, when they are ready to spawn and where they spawn,” Hintz said.


After struggling to find funding through conventional educational resources, the team sought funding through a non-conventional public method called Kickstarter, an online public funding platform.

Hintz said the money, which would be provided by donations, would help fund research to create the tags for the pallid sturgeon and allow the team to monitor the sturgeon’s body activities and location.

However, the Kickstarter campaign did not reach the $100,000 goal by the July 3 deadline, which means the group wasn’t rewarded any funding since the website requires a specific goal to be met in full before any money is given to a campaign.

Although funding for the tag development hasn’t pulled through yet, Hintz said the team is still looking for other resources and continuing any possible research.

For example, his research involves studying the niche overlap between the endangered pallid sturgeon and the more common shovelnose sturgeon, he said. Hintz said he has conducted experiments with the pallid sturgeon to understand the habitat use of the two species and to see whether they prefer to live in the same types of habitats.

Hintz said his research looks at the energy cost, or the amount of energy the sturgeon use while living in a certain environment, to identify which areas the sturgeon are most active.

“We look at the water flow of the rivers they live in,” he said. “I look at aspects like how fast the water is moving and what the energy costs are for occupying rivers that are slow flow or high flow.”

Hintz said he has also conducted research with the sturgeon to better understand the internal structure of the two species and try to compare what aspects both species share. He said although both species of sturgeon occupy many of the same areas, the pallid sturgeon is more prevalent around river groynes and the down stream ends of islands.

Before human influence, the rivers had a diverse habitat for the pallid sturgeon, but the introduction of dams and levees to the rivers have made it difficult for the pallid sturgeon to live in their environment, Hintz said.

Anthony Porecca, a doctoral student in fisheries from Homer Glen, said humans are thought to be the main cause for the decline of the pallid sturgeon population.

“Historically, the species would move up and down the river but because of dams, other structures and horrible water quality, we are probably killing off some of their food,” he said. “Unlike the shovelnose sturgeon, the pallid sturgeon eats fish-like cyprinids or minnows, but those fish are not there anymore, so there are a whole host of human impacts.”

Hintz said while the species is in danger of extinction because of trade routes and river manipulation, the university is working to help stabilize the population.

“Overfishing, altered water flow and tree clearing have drastically changed the habitats the sturgeon have lived in for centuries,” he said. “Our research is tough, but if we can work on informing the public on the impact they are making on the species, maybe we can bring them back from the brink of extinction.”