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Name that fish: Odd 5-footer washes up

A St. Petersburg couple will send photos to the experts after a day of guesswork in the bay area.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2002


A St. Petersburg couple will send photos to the experts after a day of guesswork in the bay area.

ST. PETERSBURG -- A turtle? An alligator? Or, a coelacanth?

Looking out the window of his Shore Acres home Friday, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers lineman Jeff Winans wasn't sure what had washed ashore.

Up close, it looked like some bizarre, armor-plated fish from a prehistoric era. It was white and about 5 feet long, with a flat snout and a sucker for a mouth. It had rows of bony yellow plates that appeared to be made of cartilage.

"When you turn him over, his whole back side is hard as a rock," said Brandi Winans. "I grew up on St. Pete Beach. I've snorkeled a lot. I've never seen anything remotely like this."

The couple called the Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg, but no one was available to identify the mystery fish. Send photos, the institute said.

The couple called a local TV station. WTSP-Ch. 10 sent a cameraman to shoot footage of the fish for Friday evening's newscast.

After the beast's TV debut, the station received lots of calls from people offering their best guess.

"One guy said it was ... an underwater carnivore related to the same family as a platypus," said Jim Peppard, a night assignment desk editor at WTSP.

"Another guy thought it was a coelacanth, which he said was a 6-million-year-old fish that everybody thought was extinct until it was found in the '50s off the coast of China.

"Another caller thought it was a sturgeon."

That would appear to be the correct answer.

The fish bears a strong resemblance to various species in the sturgeon family.

Sturgeon are the oldest living species of fish, dating back 250-million years. They existed at the same time as the dinosaurs, and have been described as "living fossils."

They also are rarely seen.

Charter boat captain Dave Zylewski, who has been fishing in Tampa Bay since the early 1960s, has never seen a sturgeon.

"I've heard stories from some of the old-timers who caught them in the rivers in the '30s and '40s, but that's it," said Zylewski, who runs a charter fishing business, Lucky Too Charters, out of Madeira Beach. "I've only just heard of them."

The gulf sturgeon, a species threatened with extinction, was only recently reintroduced to the Tampa Bay area.

Although native to the Gulf Coast, these fish hadn't been seen in Florida south of the Suwannee River for more than a century, according to the Florida Marine Research Institute. Pollution, dams and overfishing killed them off around here.

Then, about a year and a half ago, the research institute put nearly 50 gulf sturgeon into the Hillsborough River to see whether they would survive.

The fish spend spring and summer in coastal rivers, and the rest of the year in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Winans plan to send photos of their fish to the research institute, just so they'll know for sure.

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