National News

Conservationists helping paddlefish make comeback at Caddo Lake

Posted June 17, 2018 3:15 p.m. EDT

— Caddo Lake isn't just a jewel in the crown of natural wetlands around the world – it's also home to a unique fish that first appeared millions of years before dinosaurs roamed the earth.

"The paddlefish is the continent's old living species, 350 million years old. It's been around for 50 million more years than the dinosaurs," said Laura-Ashley Overdyke, executive director of the Caddo Lake Institute.

The 27,000-acre lake – really a flooded bald cypress forest – has more kinds of fish than any other lake in the state of Texas. It's also home to more than 200 species of birds.

Paddlefish – also called spoonbill catfish or shovelnose catfish – are native to Big Cypress Bayou, which feeds the lake. They've also been found in Red River tributaries in Texas.

Now they're making a comeback in the Caddo Lake area with help from biologists.

Paddlefish almost died out when their internal clock stopped and they stopped spawning.

"That's because they needed a springtime pulse of water to tell them it's spring. It's time to spawn and have babies. When they lost that cue because of the dam at the Lake of the Pines that stopped the natural flow of water they didn't breed anymore," Overdyke said.

Now conservationists are releasing paddlefish in Caddo Lake to help the species thrive.

"That effort has gone so well that finally for this year, 2018, we have a fully funded restocking program approved. So in the fall about 14,000 paddlefish are going to be released," Overdyke said.

Scientists will track the fish.

"There's an acoustic transmitter inserted into the paddle fish so we can track them where they go and so we can make sure they are alive. We used to use radio transmitters and they lasted about four years and showed that all of our paddlefish stayed in the system so it was a success," Overdyke said. "But these new acoustic transmitters last eight to 10 years."

Overdyke said helping keep a species alive is a special experience. The fish are about a foot and a half long when released. They can grow to seven feet long and tip the scales at 200 pounds, but most average 10 to 15 pounds.

"Getting to release that paddlefish was one of the best days of my life, it was truly thrilling. The reason is this is an indicator species like a canary in a coal mine, and its success shows us that all of the hard work we have been doing in the Caddo system has been working," she said.