Feasibility of Initiating a Commercial Fishery for Paddlefish in Alabama Reservoirs of the Tennessee River

In recent years, commercial paddlefish harvesters have renewed their requests for opening a potential commercial paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) season in Alabama reservoirs of the Tennessee River, including part of Pickwick Reservoir, all of Wilson and Wheeler reservoirs, and the majority of Guntersville Reservoir. These reservoirs of the Tennessee River once supported robust stocks of paddlefish; however, beginning in the 1940s overexploitation became evident as the number of paddlefish harvested declined. Because of this widespread overharvest, a commercial and recreational moratorium on paddlefish possession and harvest in all Alabama waters went into effect in November 1988. We report on recent paddlefish sampling efforts in Alabama reservoirs of the Tennessee River to evaluate if paddlefish stocks have recovered to the point that sustainable commercial harvest is feasible. We used gill nets with various configurations and expended a total of 3125.4 h of gillnetting effort from all four reservoirs combined from October 2016 to January 2021. We captured 17 paddlefish conferring an overall CPUE of 0.005 fish h–1. Standardizing gill-net effort across configurations resulted in CPUEs ranging from 0.00 to 0.05 fish m–2 per 24-hr soak time. Biological data obtained from 10 of the 17 paddlefish collected during gillnetting indicated these 10 fish were sexually mature with ages ranging from 8 to 16 years. Only two female paddlefish were harvested during an experimental commercial paddlefish season from Guntersville Reservoir in 2017. Due to extremely low CPUEs, results of this study indicate Tennessee River paddlefish stocks in Alabama would not support a sustainable commercial fishery at this time. We recommend continuation of the paddlefish moratorium and monitoring of the population using a standardized design based on gear and effort. We further recommend consulting with adjoining state resource agencies to seek a moratorium on commercial paddlefish harvest in shared waters of Guntersville Reservoir in the Tennessee River.

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