September 8, 2008
Contact: Karen Parker, 386-758-0525

Two Live Oak residents were injured when a sturgeon jumped into a boat cruising down the Suwannee River Sunday afternoon, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

Chandler Brant Howard, 4, and his father, Christopher W. Howard, 32, sustained lacerations when the fish hit them. Chandler also suffered a broken arm.

Chandler’s mother, Laura Howard, 29, and brother, Christopher, 7, were also in the boat but were uninjured during the encounter near the Dowling Park boat ramp in Suwannee County.

FWC officers investigating the encounter said a 3- to 4-foot sturgeon jumped in front of the Howards’ boat. The vessel was on plane and traveling approximately 30 miles per hour. The family was traveling about two miles north of the Dowling Park boat ramp.

“The sturgeon jumped up, shattering the boat’s windshield,” said Capt. Roy Brown, with FWC law enforcement. “Mr. Howard was struck and then Chandler got hit.”

The sturgeon jumped back into the river.

This strike is the most northern encounter reported to the FWC, Brown said. There have been two other encounters in 2008. The first one occurred May 23 near Branford, when a man was slightly injured when a sturgeon jumped in his boat. The second reported encounter was July 4 near Rock Bluff, when a sturgeon jumped into a boat. No one was injured except for the fish.

Boaters can take measures to protect themselves while on the water.

“We recommend boaters reduce their speed to reduce the risk of impact and to give people more time to react if they do encounter a jumping sturgeon,” Brown said. “Pay attention to your surroundings. And always wear your life jacket, even if you’re a good swimmer. It’s hard to swim if you’re unconscious.”

Children 6 years old and younger are required to wear a life jacket while on a vessel.

The Suwannee River appears to support the largest viable population of Gulf sturgeon. Biologists estimate the population at 6,500 to 7,500 fish, each averaging approximately 40 pounds. Adult fish spend eight to nine months each year in the river spawning and three to four of the coolest months in Gulf waters. Sturgeon tend to congregate in deeper and cooler waters with moderate currents and sandy and rocky bottoms.

Biologists are unsure why sturgeon jump.

“Scientists are still attempting to figure that out,” said Allen Martin, regional freshwater fisheries biologist at Lake City. “Some of the theories include that the fish jump to communicate, or it may be a dominance display. We don’t know for sure.”

These encounters are not attacks, Martin said.

“I have seen these collisions referred to as ‘attacks.’ However, these fish are in no way ‘attacking’ when they jump. They are simply doing what they have been doing for millions of years … jumping. They aren’t targeting the boaters,” Martin said.

However, Gulf sturgeon can get quite big, exceeding 8 feet and 200 pounds.

“They have five rows of rock-hard ‘scutes’ along their sides and back. When sturgeon and boaters collide, the results can be devastating,” Martin said.

Sturgeon are a protected species and may not be harvested.

“Sturgeon are protected by state and federal law, just like bald eagles, panthers and sea turtles,” Brown said.

To report sturgeon collisions, call 1-888-404-FWCC (3922).