PADDLEFISH EXPERIMENT & EDUCATION PROJECT
The American paddlefish has inhabited Caddo Lake and its watershed as well as other rivers and bayous of the Mississippi River Basin for over 300 million years, since before the time of dinosaurs. Paddlefish are now rarely found in any rivers in Texas. Where it does survive, it can grow to seven feet, weigh 200 pounds and live for 30 years. It is a filter feeder, capturing plankton on its gill strainers as it swims with its mouth open.
GOAL OF THE EXPERIMENT
The Experiment is one of many aspects of a larger effort to protect and enhance flows in the Caddo Lake watershed, and, thus, into Caddo Lake. That larger effort was begun in 2004 by Caddo Lake Institute with the technical support and leadership of the national Sustainable Rivers Project, a joint effort of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Nature Conservancy. After 7 years of research, evaluations and testing, the 40+ scientists and 50+ stakeholders who participated developed recommendations for flow regimes for Big Cypress Bayou downstream of Lake O’ the Pines (LOP) and for Little and Black Cypress Bayous and for Caddo Lake.
In 2011, the Corps of Engineers and the Northeast Texas Municipal Water District agreed to revise, for 5 years, some of its operations at Lake O’ the Pines and provide the flow regimes for Big Cypress to the extent water is available. In exchange, CLI agreed to perform several sets of experiments to evaluate the benefits of the new release patterns.
The Paddlefish work is one of those experiments, but it is more. If successful, CLI intends to assist with a second phase – the release of thousands of juvenile paddlefish to restore a viable population for the future.
With the change in water release patterns from LOP and the 2008 construction of a gravel bar for fish spawning by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the experimental release of a limited number of paddlefish became possible. (See a video about the constructing of the gravel bar.)
With funding from CLI and USACE, the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) released four dozen, two to three-foot long paddlefish with radio transmitters on March 5, 2014 into the Caddo Lake watershed. With several telemetry towers and other monitoring efforts, employees of FWS and TPWD then tracked the movements of these paddlefish monthly. Data collected from that and from the capture and re-release of six of the paddlefish showed that, one year later, those fish were healthy and had shown significant growth. Monitoring of the fish and their habitat continued until this spring when the batteries powering the radio transmitters in the fish stopped working. News articles about the release can be found here.
While the transmitters were working, CLI, with the assistance of the U.S. Gealogical Survey, uploaded data on the fish’s movements to a tracking map on the CLI website. Local schools that had “adopted” and named a paddlefish, as well as the general public, could follow the fish.
Based on the initial success in March, FWS and TPWD released 2000 young paddlefish into Caddo Lake in September 2014. These fish were smaller than those released initially, but they were tagged so they can be identified in the future. News articles about the release in September can be found here.
The FWS released its report on this first phase of the Paddlefish Experiment in July 2015. It can be seen here
THE EDUCATION EFFORT
In early 2014, CLI and the Collins Academy of Jefferson, Texas launched an education program with area schools that includes teacher training and curriculum development by the Collins Academy. Individual and group projects resulting from the efforts were shown at the Paddlefish Festival in Jefferson in May of 2014, 2015 and 2016. Students and educators are utilizing this website to gain more information on the paddlefish, its habitat, the environmental flows work in the watershed and related work. They also used the website to track the movements of the tagged paddlefish that their school or other group adopted.
Phase 2 of the experiment is underway. Another release of paddlefish by FWS with the assistance of TPWD was made on May 18, 2016. Twenty seven of the fish were surgically-implanted with radio transmitters with batteries, so the fish can be tracked as they pass five receivers set up in the watershed. This summer, their movements will be able to be seen on our tracking webpage. Several hundred other paddlefish were released at the same time. All of the fish released on May 18th were one-year old and about 12 inches long. This release and related research will help determine the long-term success of the experiment and could result in further large-scale releases of paddlefish into the Caddo Lake watershed. The Collins Academy-led education program is also continuing.
Among CLI’s many partners in the work on environmental flows for the Caddo Lake Watershed, the following have taken major roles in making this Paddlefish Project possible:
The Collins Academy
Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
Northeast Texas Municipal Water District
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
US Army Corps of Engineers
US Fish and Wildlife Service
US Geological Survey – National Wetlands Research Center
The paddlefish project is currently supported by funding from:
• Meadows Foundation
• Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation
• Individual donations