Gulf sturgeon are heading back to the Suwannee River for their annual migration, and wildlife officials are telling boaters to beware of the fish’s jumping habits.
The fish — which average about 5 feet in length and 40 pounds in weight — are known for their ability to jump more than 7 feet out of the water, Karen Parker, a spokeswoman for the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission, told WUFT.
In 2006, after nine people were injured by sturgeons after they jumped out of water, Parker started to take notice and helped create a public-awareness campaign to let people know that the fish can be dangerous.
Since then, the FWC has made the campaign an annual event and plans to distribute brochures and set up displays near busy boat ramps on the Suwannee River before summer begins.
In 2015, a child was killed and eight people were injured in collisions with the fish. This year, the sturgeons seem to be jumping less frequently, but as river levels drop, their jumping frequency may increase, Parker said.
“When the fish jump up and you’re in the vicinity, impact with that fish is going to be catastrophic,” she said. “It’s like hitting a brick wall.”
An estimated 10,000 fish are expected to start arriving in the Suwannee in May. State and federal laws protect the species, which spends eight to nine months in the river before returning to the Gulf of Mexico during the winter.
“Even one person getting hurt is one too many,” FWC Regional Commander Maj. Andy Krause said in a news release. “We want people to be aware the sturgeon are back in the Suwannee, and the risk of injury to boaters does exist.”
“The best course of action is to go slow, wear your life jacket and keep people off the bow of the boat,” he added.
The fish are often observed jumping in different areas of the Suwannee, including near Jack’s Sandbar, Manatee Springs, Old Town Trestle, Rock Bluff and Anderson Springs; between Fanning Springs and Usher Landing; and below the confluence of the Santa Fe and Suwannee rivers.
“Just because you aren’t in one of those holding areas doesn’t mean you’re safe,” Parker said. “We don’t want people to get a false sense of security, either.”
The FWC plans on ramping up patrols and social-media awareness on the three major summer holidays: Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
“The Suwannee is a gorgeous river, and we certainly don’t want to scare anyone away from enjoying it,” Krause said in the release. “We just want those recreating there to be aware these fish are present and can jump at any time.”