Karnack — 2020 has brought some good news for the Caddo Lake Institute.
“While Yangtze River Paddlefish were recently declared extinct in China, in Texas, the story is the opposite,” said Laura-Ashley Overdyke, executive director of Caddo Lake Institute. “Multiple groups are working to assure that the American Paddlefish (the world’s last remaining species) are restored to beautiful and diverse Caddo Lake.”
She noted that the paddlefish are primitive fish that filter feed on plankton and are called paddlefish because of the long rostrum or bill that looks like a long flat paddle nose, one-third of its body length. They do not have scales or bones.
The species, which is 50 million years older than the dinosaurs and now the only surviving paddlefish species on Earth, was restocked into Caddo Lake this past Wednesday.
According to Overdyke, more than 7,000 one-year-old paddlefish from the Tishimingo, Oklahoma U.S. Fish and Wildlife fish hatchery were released into their new home from the boat ramp of historic Caddo Lake State Park.
“This is all part of an official restocking plan to try and get the population for paddlefish back up to a sustainable, self-sustaining level,” Overdyke explained in a video for the Shreveport Aquarium, who has also partnered with the Institute on the mission.
Overdyke explained that the paddlefish species was once native to Caddo Lake but died out after the Lake O’ the Pines reservoir and dam were created upstream.
“The paddlefish were here naturally and then they died out in the ‘70s when a dam upstream was put in,” she said.
“The dam changed water flow patterns from naturally variable, with high spring time pulses of water telling the paddlefish it was time to spawn, to almost nonexistent,” Overdyke said.
In addition to losing the spring time pulse of water to tell them it was time to spawn, the paddlefish also lost the rocky bottom where they could lay their eggs.
“Within 15 years, the species had disappeared from the lake, and Texas declared them threatened in 1974,” said Overdyke.
“So the Caddo Lake Institute, working with Northeast Texas Municipal Water District, the Corps of Engineers, Texas Parks and Wildlife, has been restoring flows of water that mimic Mother Nature, so now the paddlefish can be fully restocked into this water body,” she explained.
Overdyke said releases of water mimicking Mother Nature support bottomland hardwood forests along with the fish habitat. She noted that this achievement in conservation, through a process called environmental flows, maintains ecosystem functions and adds to the resilience of the unique habitat.
“This process of scientific consensus to restore more natural flows has been taking place for over a decade as a result of the partnership of the Caddo Lake Institute, founded by East Texas native and current Dallas resident, Don Henley, along with The Nature Conservancy Texas, The Corps of Engineers, and the North East Texas Municipal Water District,” said Overdyke. “These flows and habitat restoration made it possible for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife Fisheries Division to initiate a full-scale restocking of Paddlefish into this system.”
She noted that Caddo Lake, Texas’s original lake, is the state’s only Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. This designation is in recognition of the special habitat and amazing biodiversity at the lake.
Overdyke said fossil records indicate that there was once six different species of paddlefish in the world. Only two were left in modern times — the American paddlefish and the recently extent Yangtze River Paddlefish in China.
“The Chinese officially declared that their species is now extent as well, so (there’s now) five extent species and this is the only remaining species on the planet,” she said.
Overdyke said the Shreveport Aquarium is part of this very unique raise and release program, where the entity raises juvenile paddlefish until they’re ready to be released and release them each spring.
“So young people can go to the Shreveport Aquarium and see this living fossil before they get released next year,” said Overdyke.
She noted that the lake was at full capacity during Spring Break 2020, with onlookers enjoying this special creature.