ALLEGHENY RESERVOIR — What has the smooth, grayish skin of a catfish with little, beady eyes and a long, paddle-shaped snout? The answer is … a paddlefish … and some people may scratch their heads and ask, “What is a paddlefish?”
The paddlefish is one of the oldest and largest freshwater fish of North America and lives only in rivers that drain into the Mississippi River. The fish looks like a cross between a swordfish and a shark, but this gentle giant has no teeth and feeds only on plankton and aquatic insect larvae that it filters from the water.
On July 18, the Randolph Fish Hatchery released a total of 1,050 endangered paddlefish into Chautauqua Lake, at Bemus Point; Conewango Creek, at Kennedy; and the Allegheny Reservoir, at the Onoville Marina. Fish culturist Barry Hohmann transported the fish from the Oneida Fish Hatchery, where the eggs were hatched, in a specially equipped hatchery truck.
New York State fisheries have been stocking the three waterways, for the past 14 years, in an effort to restore the once prolific numbers of paddlefish, which are now protected.
Aquatic biologist Michael Clancy, of DEC Region 9, said paddlefish were native to the Allegheny River and there are historic records of their presence from the 1800s. He said industrialization, and the pollutants that came along with it, wiped out the fish from western New York at the turn of the century.
Since then, the river has been cleaned up significantly and that is why the fisheries are seeing some success in bringing many of the paddlefish back. Clancy pointed out the Clean Water Act of 1972, which really cleaned up the waters in New York.
“Now that the water quality is good enough to have the fish here, there was just no way for them to get here because of the dam. It’s the only dam in the whole Allegheny system that doesn’t have a fish passage on it,” he said. “The Kinzua Dam was made for flood control and it’s a really high dam, so there’s no way for fish to get up over the dam.”
Clancy said there wasn’t a source for paddlefish eggs until the 1990s. When the University of Kentucky offered New York State paddlefish eggs, it started stocking them in 1999.
Clancy said only 48 paddlefish were stocked the first year, but they’ve been stocking them ever since. Some years the fisheries have really good production — ending up with a couple thousand fish — while other years they may get 100-200 fish. He added that the last three years, they’ve switched to a new diet and had a lot of luck raising them.
According to Clancy, the Randolph Fish Hatchery has stocked more than 12,000 fish in the Kinzua Reservoir. He explained that there is a problem keeping the paddlefish upstream in the reservoir because each year, about 20 percent of them leave through the dam and are found in the river below. Then the fish can’t get back up into the reservoir. Most survive going through the gates.
Clancy explained that paddlefish don’t mature until they are 12-14 years old. The females that were stocked in the beginning are now maturing and they hope to document natural reproduction in the Allegheny River within the next few years.
“That’s our goal — to get a self-sustaining population back into the river system and reproducing on their own. When we reach that goal, we’ll probably stop stocking them because there won’t be a need anymore,” he said.
Clancy said paddlefish are strange because the species is found only in the United States (in the Mississippi drainage) and China. As a matter-of-fact, the only place they are found, historically, in New York State, is in the Allegheny, which flows into the Mississippi. According to Clancy, the largest paddlefish on record was found in Chautauqua Lake in the 1800s, weighing 125 pounds and measuring 6 and a half feet long.
“Locally, in the Allegheny River, we’ve caught paddlefish that are five feet long already and 50 pounds. We’ve been stocking for only 14 years, so they have the potential to get to 6 feet and 100 pounds,” he said.
People may be alarmed when they see this strange-looking fish, but Clancy said they put signs up wherever they stock the paddlefish to educate the public.
He explained that the fish swim around with their mouth open. They have gill rakers in their mouth and feed on phytoplankton (plants) and zooplankton (micro organisms) — kind of like a baleen whale. They’re not bottom feeders and like to swim near the surface where they feed.
Clancy said that in order to spawn, the paddlefish need a flood event in June and the water has to be 60 degrees or warmer. They need high, fast water because they lay their eggs up on gravel bars when it’s flooded. He said the eggs float along and hatch-out in about a week.
“We don’t expect the paddlefish to spawn every year. We’re just hoping that we get a enough out there to replenish themselves. Like the sturgeon, they’re a long-lived fish and can live 50-100 years,” he said.
Clancy said the paddlefish is considered “‘extirpated,” which means they no longer exist in the state. Through a restoration program, the DEC is trying to reestablish them. Once they are reestablished, then fishery officials will determine whether they are threatened or endangered — depending on how well they are doing.
“Right now, officially, they don’t exist in New York State, because it’s not a self-sustaining population reproducing on their own,” Clancy said. “Our goal is to get naturally reproducing paddlefish back in the Allegheny River.”
Josh Haley, of the New York State Bureau of Fisheries in Allegany said the program is a cooperative effort of the New York State DEC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Seneca Nation and Kentucky State University.
He said Pennsylvania is stocking paddlefish, as well, and started stocking them about 10 years before New York State began its program.
“We won’t know until we sample,” Haley said. “The naturally spawned fish won’t have a tag, which we find by running a metal detector over the fish’s snout, technically called a rostrum, to see if there is a tag in there.”
Haley said the paddlefish stocked on July 18, in Chautauqua Lake, had red-colored tags, the fish stocked in the Conewango Creek had yellow tags and those released in the Allegheny Reservoir had blue tags.
“So now, if anybody finds the paddlefish, we’ll be able to tell where they came from and what year,” Haley said.
Clancy warns that it’s illegal to capture a paddlefish and keep it because they are protected in New York State and Pennsylvania.
“We are trying to reestablish them, so there’s no season on them. You can’t fish for them or capture them,” he said.
“What I always tell people is, the paddlefish was part of the ecosystem and they’re a native, rivering fish. We don’t know exactly what their role is, but we know they are missing from the ecosystem, so we’re trying to put them back to make a healthier ecosystem.
(This story appeared in the July 25, 2013 edition of The Salamanca Press.)