Gary and Susanna Smith: Neosho hatchery on front lines in battle to save endangered species

Pallid sturgeon have survived since the time of dinosaurs, but are considered endangered today because of loss of habitat and other threats.Courtesy | Gary Smith

Have you ever wished you could see a real, live dinosaur? The Neosho National Fish Hatchery has living, breathing dinosaurs swimming in their fish tank inside the visitor center. The pallid sturgeon, among the rarest fish in the world, has remained unchanged for 65 million years.

Before human activity, the pallid sturgeon thrived in its Missouri River habitat. Now the river is dammed, blocking spawning grounds. These dinosaurs have been poached to near extinction for their eggs.

Today, there are as few as 200 of the old legacy fish, all tagged and monitored, left in the upper reaches of the Missouri. With a lifespan of up to 80 years, these large old ones stopped reproducing decades ago. Now it takes human intervention for pallid sturgeon to successfully spawn.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has three fish hatcheries along the upper, middle and lower Missouri River. Each of these hatcheries is charged with the well-being of the pallids in their section. The Neosho National Fish Hatchery captures, spawns and releases pallids in the lower Missouri, from the Gavins Point Dam (near Yankton, South Dakota) to St. Louis.

Neosho Hatchery Manager Roderick May received a call on Oct. 15 that a pallid sturgeon had been captured about two hours north of St. Joseph. A team was dispatched for the 11-hour round trip to bring the fish back to Neosho.

An ultrasound will determine whether the fish is female and whether she has eggs.

Female pallid sturgeon hold their eggs for two to five years before releasing, so she may have a long stay in a hatchery tank with water carefully monitored to match that of the Missouri River near St. Joseph.

As the time nears for the female to release her eggs, an egg sample is carefully extracted, dissected and examined under a microscope. Once it is determined that she is ready to spawn, there is a one-week window for fertilization to take place.

Young pallids could eventually be released back into the Missouri River from the one that arrived at the Neosho hatchery in mid-October.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hatcheries around the country are diversifying to save as many endangered species as possible. In 2015, the Neosho National Fish Hatchery began raising Topeka shiners, an endangered minnow. They quickly discovered that Topeka shiners depend on male orange-spotted sunfish to build the nests and protect the young.

Once the hatchery added orange-spotted sunfish, the shiners successfully reproduced. Now, thousands of shiners are released into small prairie streams in northern Missouri.

The Neosho National Fish Hatchery’s newest project is in partnership with Missouri State University and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Two divers have been added to the staff for the recovery of native mussels.

This year, they began breeding and rearing fatmucket mussels and will soon add the endangered Neosho mucket.

Freshwater mussels also need host fish to disperse their eggs. The hatchery is starting with drum and logperch to serve as hosts for mussel restoration activities.

When asked why it is important to save any particular species, May explained, “Each species is part of the ecosystem with all species intertwined. We have to be careful because we don’t know where that critical species is, whose extinction will crash the whole food web. It might not happen for 100 years. But we are losing species every day. The declining honey bee could be one of the critical species.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hatcheries such as the Neosho National Fish Hatchery remain on the front line, with dedicated employees working tirelessly to save endangered species. Unfortunately, at the Trump administration’s directive, on Aug. 12, the U.S. Departments of Interior and Commerce released the Endangered Species Act regulatory reform package. This will change rules regarding habitat protection, impending threats and which species are listed as endangered.

Sarah Greenberger, of the National Audubon Society, said, “The rule changes are political and unwise. They tip the balance in decision-making against vulnerable wildlife.”

A Joplin Globe editorial (Aug. 16) said, “These changes ... open territory to extractive industries — lumber, mining, oil — and for more commercial development at the cost of protecting species. As far as we can see, that is the point.”

Gary and Susanna Smith live in Neosho.

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