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Suwannee's dangerous leaping sturgeon

Never before have wildlife officials seen so many people injured by jumping gulf sturgeon. Six people have already been hurt this year on the river. One woman suffered a spinal fracture and was in a coma for two weeks.

By MELANIE AVE
Published August 25, 2006


photo
[Courtesy: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission]
On Friday state officials began posting signs along the Suwanee warning the public of the potential danger of jumping sturgeon.
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FANNING SPRINGS —Dawn Poirier feels silly even saying it, and she knows there are people who won’t believe her, but here goes:

“My entire life was changed because of a fish.’’

In April, the 32-year-old Kenneth City woman was smashed by a sturgeon as it leapt out of the Suwannee River while she boated with her boyfriend in Gilchrist County. They were traveling about 30 mph, she says, when a 3-to-6-foot long fish landed on her face, tore off part of the boat’s motor and bounced back into the water.

“The whole right side of my face had to be reconstructed,’’ said Poirier, a single mother of two and owner of Serenity Skin Care of Tampa Bay. “I was in a coma. I was on a breathing machine. I don’t remember 15 days of my life.’’

Poirier’s collision with a sturgeon was the first of six on the river since April. A week ago a sturgeon knocked a 9-year-old Lake City girl from a boat, slicing her throat, and broke a fellow female passenger’s arm.

The six injuries are the most wildlife officials say they remember in a single year. Typically they see one or two.
So on Friday state officials began posting signs along the Suwanee warning the public of the potential danger of jumping sturgeon.

The 100 metal signs will be posted at boat ramps south from Hamilton County to the Gulf of Mexico.


“This is highly unusual,’’ said Maj. Bruce Hamlin, a commander with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Nobody’s been killed but we’ve had some serious injuries.’’

Sturgeon live in the Gulf of Mexico in the winter but migrate to the Suwannee and other coastal rivers in north Florida in the spring and summer to lay eggs. They have been found as far south as Charlotte Harbor and spotted in Tampa Bay.

Scientists are unsure why the fish jump. Some theorize it’s a way to deal with parasites or to communicate. “Nobody really knows,’’ Hamlin said.

The highest concentration of injuries this year has been on the Suwannee north of Fanning Springs, near the Gilchrist and Levy county line. The Suwannee is believed to have the biggest sturgeon population, with more than 3,000.

Everyone along the historic river seems to have an eye-popping, holy cow story about leaping sturgeon.


“I had one jump out of the water and bend the front of my pontoon,’’ said Gary Fields, 50, as he stood this week outside Gail’s Cafe near Fanning Springs under a dripping air conditioner.

“It jumped right in under me. Once it hit the boat it fell back in the water. I’m surprised more people don’t get hurt.’’

The commission’s goal is to finish hanging the signs before the upcoming Labor Day weekend, which draws hundreds of pleasure seekers.

Wildlife officials said they cannot predict where or when the sturgeon will jump. But if boaters and watercraft operators slow down, they can reduce the odds of getting hurt.

They also encourage people not to ride on the bow of a boat and to wear life preservers in case they get thrown.
Hamlin said he’s unsure why injuries are up but guesses it’s because more boaters are on the Suwannee, the subject of Florida’s official state song.

“It doesn’t seem the fish are jumping any more than in the past,’’ he said.

The Gulf sturgeon, one of 27 sturgeon species, was added to the threatened list of the Endangered Species Act in 1991, making it illegal to catch, kill or buy one.

The state stopped commercial fishing of sturgeon in 1984.

Sturgeon numbers dropped significantly in the early 20th century from over-fishing for their tasty boneless meat, which is smoked, and their eggs, which are used to make caviar.

Fanning Springs fisherman Ed Addington, 54, wonders if the problem is too many sturgeon.

“You ever seen a sturgeon?’’ Addington asked earlier this week, taking a drag from a cigarette. “Boy they’re ugly. I just saw one yesterday that jumped about 5 feet. I don’t understand why we can’t catch them.’’

Sturgeon date to the age of dinosaurs and they’ve kept their prehistoric look with their boneless bodies covered by hard plates lining their backs. They have a vacuum-like mouth with a long snout and whiskers.

Some Suwanee River residents believe it’s only a matter of time before someone is killed by a leaping sturgeon, which can grow to 8 feet and weigh up to 200 pounds.

“You’ve got a lot of people who’ve never been on the Suwannee River and they fly up and down the river on them Jet Skis,’’ said Phyllis Rankin, owner of The Original Suwannee River Campground near Fanning Springs. “I’m about half afraid to go out on the river when they’re jumping.’’

One person delighted that warning signs are going up is Sue NesSmith, 49. In 1995, a sturgeon jumped into the pontoon boat where she and her then-husband, James, were riding, cutting her leg and bruising his face.


She received special permission to keep the 5-foot-long, 70-pound fish, which hangs over a doorway in her restaurant, The Lighthouse in Old Town.

“If we had been in a speed boat,’’ NesSmith said, “two of us would have been killed.’’

Poirier, the Kenneth City woman, said her face remains lopsided from the sturgeon crash. She struggles with her balance and suffers from nasal congestion, not to mention $130,000 in medical bills.

“I’m mad about these silly fish,’’ she said. “Why are they jumping out of the water and hitting everyone?’’

Poirier said she will “never, never, never’’ return to the Suwannee River, unless, she jokingly added, “I’m wearing football gear.’’

Times researchers John Martin and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (727)893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

[Last modified August 25, 2006, 17:28:51]


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