(Walbaum in Artedi, 1792)
American paddlefish, Polyodon spathula, are basal chondrostean ray-finned fishes, closely related to sturgeons in the Order Acipenseriformes. They are commonly called "paddlefish", but are also referred to as "Mississippi paddlefish", "spoon-billed cats", or "spoonbill". American paddlefish are one of only two extant taxon of paddlefish remaining in the world. The other is the critically endangered Chinese paddlefish, Psephurus gladius, endemic to the Yangtze River Basin in China where there is growing concern the species may now be extinct. The etymology of the paddlefish's scientific name, Polyodon, which means many toothed, is believed to be in reference to the paddlefish's numerous gill rakers. Adult paddlefish are toothless, although numerous small teeth less than 1 mm (0.039 in) were found in a 630 mm (25 in) paddlefish; spathula references the elongated, paddle shaped snout.
Paddlefish are endemic to the Mississippi River Basin, and once moved freely under the relatively natural, unaltered conditions that existed prior to the early 1900s. They commonly inhabited large, free-flowing rivers, braided channels, backwaters, and oxbow lakes throughout the Mississippi River drainage basin, adjacent Gulf drainages, the Great Lakes and rivers in Ontario, Canada. Naturally occurring populations have been extirpated from much of their peripheral range in the Great Lakes and Canada, New York, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The current range of paddlefish has been reduced to the Mississippi and Missouri river tributaries, and Mobile Bay drainage basin. They are currently found in only twenty-two states in the U.S., and those populations are protected under state and federal laws. There are only thirteen states that allow commercial or sport fishing.
Paddlefish populations have declined dramatically primarily because of overfishing, habitat destruction, and pollution. Poaching has also been a contributing factor, and will continue to be as long as the demand for caviar remains strong. Since the 1980s, a trade embargo on Iran restricted imports of the highly sought after, and most expensive Beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea, limiting U.S. sources of caviar. American paddlefish were among the species targeted as a likely substitute because their roe can be processed into caviar similar in taste and texture to Sevruga sturgeon caviar. In an effort to protect vulnerable populations of paddlefish in the wild, state, federal, and international regulations are in place that restrict harvest, and prohibit the trafficking of paddlefish roe. Violations can result in substantial monetary fines, and imprisonment.
Paddlefish have been referred to as "primitive fishes", not because they haven't evolved, rather the term refers to the morphological characters they retained from their earliest ancestors whose fossil record dates from the Late Cretaceous, seventy to seventy-five million years ago. Fossil paddlefish with a recognizable rostrum date from the Upper Cretaceous and Paleocene periods, 65 million years ago. Some of their primitive characteristics include a skeleton composed primarily of cartilage, and a deeply forked heterocercal caudal fin similar to that of sharks, although they are not of the same taxon. The elongated rostrum is a morphological character of the Polyodontidae, but only in the genus Polyodon (P. spathula and the extinct P. tuberculata) are the features of the cranium, gill arches, and jaws distinctly adapted exclusively for filter feeding. No other extant or extinct polyodontid, or sturgeon is known to be a filter feeder which suggests the American paddlefish is a highly derived fish, and not typical of other Polyodontidae.
American paddlefish are among the largest and longest lived freshwater fishes in North America. They have a shark-like body, average 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) in length, weigh 27 kilograms (60 lb), and can live in excess of thirty years. However, the median age for most populations is five to eight years, and maximum age is fourteen to eighteen years.
Paddlefish are smooth skinned, and almost entirely cartilagenous. Their eyes are small and directed laterally. They have a large, tapering operculum flap, a large mouth, and a flat, paddle-shaped rostrum that measures approximately one-third its body length. During the initial stages of development from embryo to fry, paddlefish have no rostrum. It begins to form shortly after hatching. The rostrum is an extension of the cranium, not of the upper and lower jaws, or olfactory system as with the long snouts of other fishes. Other distinguishing characteristics include a deeply forked heterocercal caudal fin, and dull coloration, often with mottling, and ranging from bluish-gray to black dorsally grading to white ventrally.
The debate regarding the function of the paddlefish's rostrum began when the species was described in the late 1700s. Scientists once believed it was used to excavate bottom substrate, or functioned as a balancing mechanism and navigational aid. However, laboratory experiments with utilization of advanced technology, particularly in the field of electron microscopy, research dating from 1993 has established conclusively that the paddlefish's rostrum is covered with tens of thousands of sensory receptors, morphologically similar to the Ampullae of Lorenzini of sharks and rays, and that they are indeed passive ampullary-type electroreceptors used by paddlefish to detect plankton while foraging. Clusters of electroreceptors also cover the head and operculum flap. The electroreceptors can detect weak electrical fields which not only signal the presence of zooplankton, the primary diet of American paddlefish, but they can also detect the individual feeding and swimming movements of zooplankton's appendages. The extended rostrum functions like an antenna detecting prey as the fish swims forward continuously ram feeding with its mouth wide open. Research further indicates the electroreceptors may also serve as a navigational aid to mediate obstacle avoidance.
Paddlefish have small undeveloped eyes that are directed laterally. Unlike most fish, paddlefish hardly respond to overhead shadows, or changes in illumination. Electroreception appears to have largely replaced vision as a primary sensory modality, which indicates a reliance on electroreceptors for detecting prey. However, the rostrum is not their only means of food detection. Some reports have suggested a damaged rostrum would render paddlefish less capable of foraging efficiently to maintain good health, but laboratory experiments, and field research indicate otherwise. In addition to electroreceptors on the rostrum, paddlefish also have sensory pores covering nearly half of the skin surface extending from the rostrum to the top of the head down to the tips of the operculum flaps. Studies have indicated that paddlefish with damaged, or abbreviated rostrums are still able to forage and maintain good health.
Habitat and Distribution
Paddlefish are highly mobile, and well adapted to living in rivers. They inhabit many types of riverine habitats throughout much of the Mississippi Valley and adjacent Gulf slope drainages. They occur most frequently in deeper, low current areas such as side channels, oxbows, backwater lakes, bayous, and tailwaters below dams. Paddlefish have been observed to move more than 3,218.68 km (2,000.00 mi) in a river system.
Paddlefish are endemic to the Mississippi River basin, historically occurring from the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers in the northwest to the Ohio and Allegheny rivers of the Northeast; the headwaters of the Mississippi River south to its mouth, from the San Jacinto River in the southwest to the Tombigbee and Alabamarivers of the Southeast. They were extirpated from much of their peripheral range in the Great Lakes region and Canada, New York, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. However, in 1991 Pennsylvania implemented a reintroduction program utilizing hatchery-reared paddlefish in an effort to establish self-sustaining populations in the upper Ohio and lower Allegheny rivers. In 1998, New York initiated a stocking program upstream in the Allegheny Reservoir above Kinzua Dam, and a second stocking in 2006 in Conewango Creek, a relatively unaltered section of their historic range. Reports of free ranging adult paddlefish captured by gill nets have since been documented in Pennsylvania and New York, but there is no evidence of natural reproduction. They are currently found in only twenty-two states in the U.S., and are protected under state and federal laws. There are only thirteen states that allow commercial or sport fishing.
Paddlefish are a long-lived, sexually late maturing pelagic fish. Females do not begin spawning until they are seven to ten years old, some as late as sixteen to eighteen years old. Females do not spawn every year, rather they spawn every second or third year. Males spawn more frequently, usually every year or every other year beginning around age seven, some as late as nine or ten years of age.
Paddlefish begin their upstream spawning migration sometime during early spring; some begin in late fall. Paddlefish spawn on silt-free gravel bars that would otherwise be exposed to air, or covered by very shallow water were it not for the rises in the river from snow melt and annual spring rains that cause flooding. Although availability of preferred spawning habitat is essential, there are three precise environmental events that must occur before paddlefish will spawn:
- The water temperature must be from 55 to 60 °F (13 to 16 °C);
- The photo period which occurs in Spring must be just right;
- There must be a proper rise and flow in the river.
Historically, paddlefish did not spawn every year because the events only occurred once every 4 or 5 years. They are broadcast spawners, also referred to as mass spawners or synchronous spawners. Gravid females release their eggs into the water over bare rocks or gravel at the same time males release their sperm. Fertilization occurs externally. The eggs become sticky after they are released into the water, and will attach to the bottom substrate. Incubation varies depending on water temperature, but in 60 °F (16 °C) water, the eggs will hatch into larval fish in about seven days.
After hatching, the larval fish drift downstream into areas of low flow velocity where they forage on zooplankton. Paddlefish fry grow rapidly, and by late July the fingerlings are around 5–6 in (13–15 cm) long. Paddlefish fingerlings feed in a different manner from older juveniles and adults. They capture individual plankton one by one which requires detection and location of individual Daphnia on approach, followed by an intercept maneuver to capture the selected prey. By late September, the fingerlings have developed into juvenile paddlefish, and are around 10–12 in (25–30 cm) long. Rapid first-year growth is important to their survival. They are weak swimmers, and susceptible to predation.
Paddlefish can live to be 60 years old or older. The age of a paddlefish is best determined by dentary studies of the lower jawbone. Most age studies occur on fish that have been harvested during snagging season. The dentary is removed, cleaned of any remaining soft tissue, and cross-sectioned to expose the annual rings. The dentary rings are counted in much the same way a tree is aged. Females typically live longer and grow larger than males. The largest paddlefish on record was captured in Lake Okoboji, Iowa in 1916 by a spear fisherman, and measured 85 in (2.2 m) long, and weighed an estimated 198 lb (90 kg).
Federal and state resource agencies utilize artificial propagation techniques to mitigate areas in which self-sustaining populations no longer exist, including impoundments created by dams that block upstream migration to spawning shoals, and where environmental conditions fail to meet the exacting spawning requirements of paddlefish. Artificial propagation of paddlefish began with the efforts of the Missouri Department of Conservation during the early 1960s, and was oriented primarily on the maintenance of the sport fishery. The growing importance of paddlefish for its meat and roe became the catalyst for further development of culture techniques for aquaculture in the U.S. rather than restoration.
Artificial propagation of paddlefish requires broodstock which, because of the late sexual maturation of paddlefish, are initially obtained from the wild, and brought into a hatchery environment. The fish are injected with LH-RHhormone to stimulate spawning. The number of eggs a female may produce depends on the size of the fish and can range anywhere from 70,000-300,000 eggs. Unlike most teleosts, the oviduct branches of paddlefish and sturgeon are not directly attached to the ovaries, rather they open dorsally into the body cavity. Ova staging is performed to determine status of progression toward maturation, and requires a minor procedure that involves a small abdominal incision from which to extract a few sample oocytes. The oocytes are boiled for a few minutes until the yolk is hardened, and then cut in half to expose the nucleus for microscopic examination to determine stage of maturity.
Once maturation is confirmed, one of three procedures is used to extract the eggs from a female paddlefish:
- the traditional hand-stripping method, considered to be time consuming and laborious;
- Caesarean section, a relatively quick surgical method of extracting eggs through a 4 in (10 cm) abdominal incision; considered faster than hand stripping, however suturing can be time consuming, and the incision may result in muscular stress and poor suture retention which lowers survival rate;
- MIST, (minimally invasive surgical technique) which is the fastest of the three procedures, requires less handling, and does not require suturing. A small internal incision is made in the dorsal area of the oviduct which allows direct stripping of eggs from the body cavity through the gonopore, bypassing the oviductal funnels.
Spermiating male paddlefish can produce large volumes of milt over the course of three to four days. Milt is collected by inserting a short plastic tube with syringe attached into the urogenital opening of the male paddlefish, and applying light suction with the syringe to draw the milt. The collected milt is diluted in water just prior to adding it to the eggs, and the combination is gently stirred for about a minute to achieve fertilization. Fertilized eggs are adhesive and demersal, therefore if incubation is to take place in a flow-through hatching jar, the eggs must be treated to prevent clumping. Incubation usually takes anyway from five to twelve days.
Global commercial market
Advancements in biotechnology have created a global commercial market for paddlefish polyculture. In 1970, American paddlefish were stocked in several rivers in Europe and Asia. Introduction began when five-thousand hatched larvae from Missouri hatcheries in the United States were imported into the former USSR for aquacultural utilization. Reproduction was successful in 1988 and 1989, and resulted in the exportation of juvenile paddlefish to Romania and Hungary. Paddlefish are now being raised in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and the Plovdiv and Vidin regions in Bulgaria. In May 2006, specimens of different sizes and weights were caught by professional fisherman near Prahovo in the Siberian part of the Danube River.
In 1988, fertilized paddlefish eggs and larvae from Missouri hatcheries were first introduced into China. Since that time, China imports approximately 4.5 million fertilized eggs and larvae every year from hatcheries in Russia, and the United States. Some of the paddlefish are polycultured in carp ponds, and sold to restaurants while others are cultured for brood stock and caviar production. China has also exported paddlefish to Cuba where they are farmed for caviar production.
Overfishing and habitat destruction
Paddlefish populations have declined dramatically primarily as a result of overfishing and habitat destruction. Paddlefish are filter feeding pelagic fish that require large, free-flowing rivers with braided channels, backwater areas, oxbow lakes that are rich in zooplankton, and gravel bars for spawning. Series of dams on rivers such as those constructed on the Missouri River have impounded large populations of paddlefish, and blocked their upstream migration to spawning shoals. Channelization and groynes, or wing dykes have caused the narrowing of rivers and altered flow, destroying crucial spawning and nursery habitat for paddlefish. As a result, most impounded populations are not self-sustaining, and must be stocked in order to maintain a viable sport fishery.
Zebra mussel infestations in the Mississippi River, Great Lakes, and other Midwest rivers are also negatively impacting paddlefish populations. Zebra mussels are an invasive species that are well adapted for explosive population growth. As filter feeders, zebra mussels rely on plankton, and can filter significant amounts of phytoplankton and zooplankton in the water, altering the availability of an important food source for paddlefish, and native unionidae.
Poaching is also a contributing factor to declining paddlefish populations in the states where they are commercially exploited, particularly while the demand for caviar remains strong. Since the 1980s, a trade embargo on Iran restricted imports of the highly sought after, and most expensive Beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea, limiting U.S. sources of caviar. The most sought after caviar is produced by sturgeon in the Northern Caspian Sea, but overfishing and poaching have exhausted the supply. Sturgeon and paddlefish populations in the U.S. were targeted as likely substitutes.
Paddlefish roe can be processed into caviar similar in taste and texture to Sevruga sturgeon caviar. It has been described by caviar gourmets as a good substitute for Beluga, "with its clear, glossy beads, buttery flavor, and steel gray to light or even golden-gray roe." Several cases of mislabeled paddlefish roe sold as Caspian Sea caviar have been prosecuted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
State and federal regulations restricting the harvest of paddlefish populations in the wild, and the illegal trafficking of paddlefish roe are strictly enforced. Paddlefish related violations such as the illegal transport of paddlefish roe have resulted in convictions with substantial fines, and prison sentences. Paddlefish are also protected under CITES, (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora).
The American paddlefish remains a popular sport fish where populations are sufficient to allow such activity. Areas where there are no self-sustaining populations rely on state and federal restocking programs to maintain a viable fishery. A 2009 report includes the following states as allowing paddlefish sport fishing per their respective state and federal regulations: Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Montana, South Dakota, and Tennessee. Since paddlefish are filter-feeders, they will not take bait, or lures, and must be caught by snagging. The official state record in Kansas is a 144 lb (65 kg) paddlefish snagged in 2004; Montana, a 142.5 lb (64.6 kg) paddlefish snagged in 1973; and in North Dakota, a 130 lb (59 kg) paddlefish snagged in 2010.
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- Media related to Polyodon spathula at Wikimedia Commons
- The Paddlefish: An American Treasure  - documentary chronicling the biology and life history of paddlefish