Last summer, a friend of mine told me about an interesting experience she'd had. While canoeing on Conewango Creek, she spotted a strange fish that appeared to be swimming like a shark. Upon closer inspection, she saw that the fish had a very long snout and realized it was a paddlefish. Downstream, she came across two dozen more paddlefish, none of which seemed particularly afraid of the boat. Her story piqued my interest, and I did a little research to find out more.
The North American Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) is a smooth-skinned, freshwater fish that lives in backwaters, lakes and pools. Its name comes from its unmistakable paddle-shaped snout, which can be one-third the length of its body. It is thought that paddlefish use electro-sensory receptors in their snout to help them find food. They have very large mouths, which they use to filter zooplankton from the water. During their 30- to 50-year lifespan, the fish can grow to 7 feet in length and weigh nearly 200 pounds.
Historically, populations of paddlefish were found in the Allegany River system in New York state. The occasional stray fish was even found in Chautauqua Lake. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation website recounts a story reported in the Jamestown Journal on July 15, 1872:
"Bemus Point yesterday was somewhat astonished by the appearance upon the surface of old Chautauqua Lake a mammoth fish who was terrible agitating the otherwise calm and placid waters. It was the largest fish ever caught in the lake, measuring six feet in length, and on its nose was a bill, very wide and flat, nearly a foot long. The fish weighed one hundred and twenty pounds ..."
The DEC website goes on to say that "one can only surmise that this lone paddlefish specimen migrated under flood conditions into the lake from the Ohio River via the Allegheny, Conewango and Chadakoin rivers. The distressed fish was later stuffed and displayed at the Union School in Mayville and a photograph was apparently taken that has not been seen to date."
Due to factors such as pollution and habitat destruction and degradation, paddlefish populations in New York state have severely declined over the last century. However, NYSDEC decided to undertake an effort to reestablish our paddlefish populations. When they began in 1998, 48 paddlefish were released into Onoville Bay. Since then, the project has expanded to include Conewango Creek and Chautauqua Lake, where over 13,000 paddlefish have been stocked. In 2011 alone, DEC released 950, 14-inch paddlefish into Chautauqua Lake and 600 into Conewango Creek.
The restoration efforts seem to be working, with the paddlefish surviving and growing quickly. The hope is that the fish will begin to reproduce and maintain a population naturally once they reach maturity. This will take time, however, since maturity in paddlefish occurs at 10-12 years - a fact to consider should you happen to catch one of these strange fish in our watershed.
The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a private nonprofit organization with a mission to preserve and enhance the water quality, scenic beauty, and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. To sign up for e-news updates, find information on watershed care, or support CWC's conservation activities, visit chautauquawatershed.org, like our Facebook page at Facebook.com/ChautauquaWatershed or call the CWC office at 664-2166.