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Observation of a Juvenile Gulf Sturgeon in the Santa Fe River,
H. Jared Flowers1,* and William E. Pine III1
Abstract – A juvenile Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi (Gulf Sturgeon ) was collected from the
Santa Fe River, a major tributary of the Suwannee River, FL, on 6 December 2006. The Suwannee
River is believed to contain the largest existing population of Gulf Sturgeon; however, our
specimen is only the third Gulf Sturgeon collected from the Santa Fe River. Based on these
observations, we believe that the Santa Fe River should be studied further to determine its importance
as Gulf Sturgeon habitat, especially in the face of future management plans that may
alter the hydrology of the system.
Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi Vladykov (Gulf Sturgeon) is listed as Federally
Threatened and as a Species of Special Concern by the State of Florida (USFWS
1995). Gulf Sturgeon can reach sizes of over 90 kg and 2.4 m total length, live over
25 years, and are thought to reach sexual maturity between ages 7–12 years (Huff
1975). Gulf Sturgeon range throughout the northern Gulf of Mexico from Tampa
Bay, FL to the Mississippi River drainage (Wooley and Crateau 1985). They are
anadromous, spending over half the year in freshwater rivers, where they generally
spawn on shoals with a hard, rocky bottom (Huff 1975). The mainstem Suwannee
River of northwest Florida is believed to support the largest remaining population of
Gulf Sturgeon and has been frequently studied (i.e., Carr et al. 1996, Pine et al. 2001,
Sulak and Clugston 1998). Its tributaries, however, have received much less attention
in regard to Gulf Sturgeon research. Observations discussed in this paper suggest the
tributary Santa Fe River also may provide important Gulf Sturgeon habitat.
On 6 December 2006, a Gulf Sturgeon was collected from the Santa Fe River approximately
32-km upstream of the Suwannee River confl uence and 2-km upstream
of Rum Island Park, Columbia County, FL, at a depth of 1 m (Fig. 1). This individual
was collected during a routine quarterly assessment of the fish community in the
Santa Fe River being performed by a joint group from the Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission and the University of Florida. The specimen was a juvenile,
approximately 8–9 months old, with a 372 mm fork length, and 426 mm total
length. The specimen was photographed and tagged with a T-bar tag in each pectoral
fin (numbers 1245 and 1246), then released and observed to swim away. This Gulf
Sturgeon was captured on the last day of a three-day sampling event, and sampling
had occurred along the same 1-km stretch of river each day.
Historically, there have been only scattered and largely unconfirmed reports of Gulf
Sturgeon in the Santa Fe River, with most of these reports occurring near the confl uence
with the Suwannee River approximately at river kilometer (rkm) 110-km upstream of
the Gulf of Mexico (Ken Sulak, USGS, Gainesville,FL, pers. comm.). Two museum
specimens of Gulf Sturgeon have been collected from the Santa Fe River upstream of
the confl uence with the Suwannee River in October 1931 and in January 1974, approximately
35 and 19 km upstream of the confl uence, respectively (museum specimens,
University of Florida, [UF] 4204, Gainesville, FL; Fish and Wildlife Research Institute,
Florida State Board of Conservation [FSBC] F 08847, St. Petersburg, FL) (Fig 1). The
FSBC F 08847 specimen is a 234-mm SL, young-of year juvenile; however, the UF 4204
specimen has been lost, and no length measurement for it is available.
Are juvenile Gulf Sturgeon using the Santa Fe River regularly? If so, why? And
what is the significance? It is notable that two of the three Santa Fe specimens are
juveniles and all three were sampled in late Fall or Winter. Telemetry projects in
Notes of the Southeastern Nat u ral ist, Issue 7/3, 2008
560 Southeastern Naturalist Notes Vol. 7, No. 3
the Suwannee have not observed adults moving into the Santa Fe (Carr et al.1996,
Foster and Clugston 1997, Parkyn et al. 2007). Sulak and Clugston (1998) observed
Gulf Sturgeon spawning in the Suwannee River between rkm 200 and 221 and found
juvenile Gulf Sturgeon ≤450-mm TL in the mainstem Suwannee River from rkm
10 to rkm 237, an area of the river that includes the confl uence of the Santa Fe and
Suwannee Rivers. Taking into account these wide-ranging movement patterns, large
areas of the Santa Fe River are within the possible movement ranges of juvenile Gulf
Sturgeon (Sulak and Clugston 1998).
The Santa Fe River is tannic and similar to the Suwannee River during periods
of high streamfl ow, but at low streamfl ow, the Santa Fe is much clearer and
dominated by input from groundwater springs (Hunn and Slack 1983). All three
Santa Fe specimens were observed during low-water periods, indicating water clarity
similar to the Suwannee may not be a requirement for juvenile habitat selection
(USGS gauge 02321500). Kynard and Parker (2004) found in an experimental setting
that very young Gulf Sturgeon (<171 days old, younger than Santa Fe specimens)
were negatively phototaxic, but that older fish did not demonstrate the same lightavoidance
behaviors. It is possible that water conditions during high-fl ow periods
have concealed Gulf Sturgeon from observation in other years.
Food availability may be the reason juvenile Gulf Sturgeon utilize the Santa Fe
River. Juvenile Gulf Sturgeon feed on riverine benthic macroinvertebrates throughout
their first year, specifically aquatic insects and oligochaetes (Mason and Carr
1993). Mason (1991) found that macroinvertebrate densities in the Santa Fe River
were up to twice those in the mainstem Suwannee River during both summer and
More research is needed to describe how Gulf Sturgeon use the Santa Fe River.
No directed sampling studies for Gulf Sturgeon in the Santa Fe River have been published,
and there have been limited, unsuccessful sampling efforts associated with
public sightings (K.J. Sulak, US Geological Survey, Gainesville, FL, pers. comm.).
Figure 1. Suwannee and Santa Fe River systems in Florida and locations of Santa Fe Gulf Sturgeon
observations (modified from Martin and Screaton 2001).
2008 Southeastern Naturalist Notes 561
Clugston and Sulak (1998) state age-0 individuals can be found in Suwannee River
tributaries, based on specimen FSBC F 08847. If juvenile Gulf Sturgeon are using the
Santa Fe River, it will be important to examine the impacts of future regulations proposed
by management agencies and the associated potential alterations to the natural
hydrology of the system. Currently, the Santa Fe and Suwannee River are listed as
priority rivers for development of minimum fl ow and level regulations by the Suwannee
River Water Management District (see http://www.srwmd.state.fl .us/features/
cooperative+programs/minimum+fl ows+and+levels/default.htm). Additionally, the
Santa Fe River is not listed under the critical habitat designation for Gulf Sturgeon by the
United States Fish and Wildlife Service (see http://www.fws.gov/alabama/gs/). Considering
our recent collection and the historical collection records, the Santa Fe River
should likely also be included in the area designated as critical habitat for Gulf sturgeon.
Acknowledgments. We would like to thank Will Strong and Travis Tuten of the
Florida FWC for the capture of our Gulf Sturgeon; Ted Hoehn, Alan Huff, Ramon
Ruiz-Carus, and Ken Sulak for their help with historical information on sturgeon in
the Santa Fe River; and Jim Williams for editorial guidance.
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1University of Florida, Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 7922 NW 71st Street,
Gainesville, FL 32653. *Corresponding author - jfl ow@ufl .edu.