tampabay.com

Fear the fish

No, seriously. Sturgeon weighing up to 200 pounds are leaping several feet into the air this time of year, knocking people out of boats and causing severe injuries.

By MELANIE AVE
Published August 26, 2006


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 Skincare of Tampa Bay. "I was in a coma. I was on a breathing machine. It was like I was in a really, really bad car accident."

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.

Wildlife officials say the six injuries are the most they remember in a single year. Typically they see one or two.

So on Friday state officials began posting signs along the Suwannee 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 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 jackets in case they are thrown into the water.

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, a subspecies of the Atlantic 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 whether the problem is too many sturgeon.

"You ever seen a sturgeon?" Addington asked 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 Suwannee River residents think 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 mave@sptimes.com or 727 893-8813.

Gulf sturgeon

Species: A subspecies of the Atlantic sturgeon, one of 27 sturgeon species. Sturgeons date back about 200-million years to the age of dinosaurs.

Look: Rows of armored plates on their side and back called scutes. They have a vacuum-like mouth with a long snout and whiskers. They range in color from tan to brown with a white belly.

Size: Can grow up to 8 feet long and weigh 200 pounds.

Home: In the winter, they live in the Gulf of Mexico and feast on shrimp and shellfish. In the spring and summer, they migrate to coastal rivers to lay eggs from the Suwannee River to the Pearl River in Louisiana. The Suwannee is believed to have the largest population in Florida, with more than 3,000.

Status: Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1991. Protected from commercial fishing by the state in 1984.

Activity: The fish can jump 6 feet out of the river. Theories differ as to why they leap from the water.

Source: U.S. Geological Survey