Old Town man injured by sturgeon on Florida's Suwannee River

An Old Town man was injured Fridaywhen he collided with a sturgeon that had jumped out of the Suwannee River in front of his boat.

Christopher Jordan Marlo (DOB 09/18/80), sustained non-life-threatening injuries, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) investigators.

Marlo was operating the 14-foot johnboat that belonged to his passenger, John Garrett Cobb (DOB 06/05/75) of Cross City. They were just south of Rock Bluff near the County Road 340 bridge. The two had been fishing and were headed back to the Gornto Springs boat ramp, where they had launched at 7 a.m.

According to investigators, the two were traveling about 10 to 15 mph. At about 10:30 a.m., a sturgeon jumped up in front of the vessel, striking Marlo. Neither man saw the fish. However, Cobb reported he saw something splash off the right side of the boat and the boat turned hard to the right. He looked back to see Marlo slumped over the left side of the vessel. Cobb got Marlo back into the boat and went to the Rock Bluff boat ramp, according to FWC investigators.

Marlo was transported to Shands Hospital in Gainesville by emergency medical personnel. The sturgeon strike was reported to the FWC by the Dixie County Sheriff’s Office, and an investigation into the incident began.

“This is first sturgeon strike in 2012,” said Maj. Roy Brown, regional commander of the FWC’s North Central Region. “And that’s one too many.”

Brown explained, “We certainly don’t want to scare anyone off the river. The Suwannee is beautiful and we want folks to come out and enjoy their trip. We just want to remind boaters the sturgeon are back in the Suwannee and they are jumping.”

In 2006, FWC officials began working on a public awareness campaign to alert boaters to the risks of jumping sturgeon.

“We have posted signs at each boat ramp along the Suwannee, explaining the risk of impacts with these fish, and we have just recently posted larger signs, warning of jumping sturgeon, along the river,” Brown said. “Our officers increase their water patrol efforts during the summer months in a continued effort to educate boaters about boating safety and sturgeon.”

What’s the best course of action for avoiding a collision?

“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. “The FWC also recommends that all boaters wear their life jackets.”

The Suwannee River appears to support the largest viable population of Gulf sturgeon. Biologists estimate the annual population at 10,000-14,000 fish, averaging approximately 40 pounds each. Adult fish spend eight to nine months each year in the river spawning and three to four of the coolest months in Gulf waters.

Biologists are unsure why sturgeon jump. Two theories are that the fish jump to communicate or as a dominance display.

“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,” Brown said.

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

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

State and federal laws protect sturgeon, just like bald eagles, panthers and sea turtles.

“These fish may not be harvested,” Brown said.

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

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