Imperiled Atlantic Sturgeon Rescued from Santee Cooper Lakes

Imperiled Atlantic Sturgeon Rescued from Santee Cooper Lakes

A South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) fisheries biologist team rescued a five-foot Atlantic sturgeon during a rescue mission in Lake Moultrie on May 31, 2017.

By Ellen Waldrop, SCDNR Freshwater Fisheries Biologist

The Atlantic sturgeon is a prehistoric fish that is found along the Atlantic Coast of the U.S. and inhabits most of South Carolina's major river systems.

SCDNR Freshwater Fisheries Biologist Mark D'Ercole aids in the recovery of the sturgeon from Lake Moultrie. (SCDNR image)

Historically, it was harvested for its meat and roe (caviar) resulting in major overall population declines in many Southeastern Rivers and eventually lead to it being listed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) as an endangered species in 2012.

South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) fisheries biologists are currently studying the ancient fishes' behavior in most of South Carolina's major rivers by tagging the fish with acoustic transmitters and tracking their movement.

In order to track these fish, they must first be captured, which can be very difficult in large reservoirs. Sturgeon are benthic feeders and spend most of their time near the bottom of the river using the barbels on their snout to locate small food items in the sediment (clams, crustaceans, insects, worms, etc.), which they suck into their mouths like a vacuum.

Because of their diet and habitat preferences, they are not easily caught on a hook and line which is why many recreational anglers rarely encounter them. Additionally, since Atlantic sturgeon are endangered "it is illegal to fish for, catch or keep Atlantic sturgeon or its parts commercially or recreationally."

Researchers are only allowed to capture these fish under strict permitting from NMFS. In South Carolina, SCDNR fisheries biologists set weighted gill nets that sit near the bottom and capture fish when they become entangled in the net. The fish are then held on a boat in a large -live well with recirculating flow where they are "worked up," a process that includes measuring, weighing, collecting biological and genetic samples, and tagging.

Part of the tagging process includes performing surgery and carefully inserting internal acoustic transmitters into the body cavity of the fish, these transmitters emit a unique code, that when detected, allows for the identification of an individual fish. Once the work up has been completed the fish is immediately returned to the river.

At this point, a stationary acoustic telemetry array takes over monitoring the tagged fish. This array consists of acoustic receivers stationed along all the major rivers and estuaries in SC, and up and down the Atlantic coast. Currently, SCDNR maintains almost 350 of these receivers in rivers, lakes, and nearshore ocean.

When a fish with a transmitter swims within a ¼ mile of the receiver, its unique transmitter code is recorded. Fisheries biologists then download the data from these receivers and can determine which fish were near a particular receiver and at what time. This type of data has been vital to answering many questions concerning fish movements, especially for fish that cover large areas and are hard to observe in the wild.

Like salmon, Atlantic sturgeon are anadromous fish, meaning they are born in fresh water, spend portions of their life in salt water, and re-enter the same water bodies in which they were born in the spring or fall when it is time to spawn.

Because of the telemetry array, SCDNR fisheries biologists discovered that in September 2016 a tagged Atlantic sturgeon (transmitter code A69-9001-26455), swam up the Cooper River and entered Lake Moultrie through the Pinopolis Dam Navigation Lock.

It was on a presumed spawning run in the Cooper River and while three other adult Atlantic sturgeon were detected just below the Pinopolis Dam, only one entered the lake. There is a population of shortnose sturgeon (the smaller cousin of the Atlantic sturgeon) that remain in the upper portions of Lake Marion in the Santee-Cooper Lakes year round.

However, this was the first tagged Atlantic sturgeon documented in the Santee-Cooper Lakes. Just like manatees that occasionally enter the lake system, this fish could not find a way out. With the increasing water temperatures, and potential lack of food, SCDNR fisheries biologists decided intervention was necessary.

In the weeks leading up to the capture, additional receivers were deployed in Lake Moultrie to identify this fish's movements.

Collected data showed biologists what area the fish was most likely to be located, which was near the southeast portion of the lake and along the dam wall.

On May 31st a team of biologists led the charge to capture the sturgeon in hopes of returning it back downriver.

The day began with downloading nearby receivers and "listening" for the fish with hydrophones. Hydrophones can be thought of as underwater microphones and like the array receivers, pick up the unique transmitter code the tagged fish send out. The fish was eventually located near the main navigation channel in water approximately 55 ft. deep.

After determining which direction it was headed, several netting boats surrounded the area and through a coordinated effort, about ten anchored gill nets were set in a large circle around the fish and then we waited. To everyone's amazement, after several hours and on the second to last net haul, the fish was finally captured. It was then transported back downstream thru the Pinopolis Lock and safely returned to the Cooper River.

Recent receiver data has shown that it swam all the way back down the river and is currently in the Charleston Harbor. Biologists will continue to monitor the fish's movements and expect to see it return to the Atlantic Ocean soon.

For more information about diadromous fish.

(Note: This article was shared by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources)

Recommended for You


Baitfish for Bass: Search, Suspend or Sink Crankbaits

Jason Houser - May 21, 2019

Crankbaits mimic exactly what they eat when hungry — other fish!


How to Fish Bottom Bouncers for Walleye

Mark Sak - May 23, 2019

While misunderstood by some, fishing bottom bouncers can be a very productive technique for...

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

MLF Pro Tips: Go-To Baits for the Spawn

Major League Fishing pros talk about the first lure they choose when targeting spawning bass.

Costa's Award Winning Waterwoman Sunglasses

Costa's Amanda Sabin tells OSG's Lynn Burkhead about all of the great features that made the new Waterwoman frame a big winner at the 2019 ICAST show as well as out on the water.

Mustad's Inkvader Octopus Live Jig

From big fish to small, just about any saltwater game fish out there will love the new Mustad Inkvader Octopus Live Jig that Mustad's Russ Whisler shows to OSG's Lynn Burkhead.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories


Understanding Catfish Spawning

Keith Sutton - June 06, 2006

Unlike many game fish, catfish can be harder to catch during the spawn. Here are some...

Other Freshwater

5 Great Lures For Bluegills

Stephen D. Carpenteri - March 10, 2011

Who needs live bait when the big 'gills are so eager to strike these lures?


10 Best Long-Range Cartridges Ever Made

David Hart - January 14, 2015

Want to test the outer limits of your shooting skill? There's more to successful long-range

See More Stories

More Conservation & Politics

Conservation & Politics

Game Warden Stories: Magnet Fishing, Christmas Poaching, Reckless Endangerment

Game & Fish Online Staff - August 09, 2018

Wildlife officers face a myriad of incidents when in the field. These game warden stories...

Conservation & Politics

Game Warden Stories: 2-Year-Old Found, Lifetime Ban, Strangled Goose

G&F Online Staff - July 17, 2019

Here's a look at recent cases conservation officers faced in the field all across the nation.

Conservation & Politics

Invasive Carp Challenge Finalists Compete for $500K

Game & Fish Online Staff - March 23, 2018

Boaters can and have been injured when hit by leaping invasive silver carp weighing up to 40

See More Conservation & Politics

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.