For a large, ancient and extremely endangered species, the pallid sturgeon receives remarkably little respect. The fish is nobody's poster child. Unlike trout and salmon, it has no real champions among environmental groups; it occasionally gets passing mention, but little direct advocacy, and few are actively engaged in the recovery effort. Pallids spend their entire lives deep in cloudy rivers, so people rarely glimpse them, let alone connect with them. And though they face many of the same threats that salmon do, they lack that fish's economic or cultural value.
In the Lower Missouri Basin, in particular, efforts to restore the river to improve pallids' prospects are often loudly opposed by the barge industry, which requires deep channels and tends to resist changes in flow management. Though commercial freight is a relatively minor industry on the Missouri today, the Army Corps still concentrates much of its energy on preserving a nine-foot-deep channel for barges. This doesn't square with the reproductive whims of pallids, which are triggered by the river's seasonal changes. But given their lack of economic value, it's a tug-of-war that pallids are likely to lose. Nor do they have fans among anglers, unlike paddlefish, their arguably odder-looking cousins, which are fished for fun and for roe that's become a popular caviar.
"If we said, 'We need to conserve paddlefish,' " says George Jordan, the Fish and Wildlife Service's pallid recovery coordinator, "people would come out of the woodwork (to support it)."
The agencies and biologists who work on pallid recovery have thus become the species' de facto champions. In recent years, the Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife departments have stepped up public outreach, sending biologists into schools to teach the fish's natural history, and offering hatchery pallids to Cabela's in South Dakota, the St. Louis Zoo, and California's Steinhart Aquarium. But the adults need flowing, turbid water to thrive and aren't easy to keep in aquariums. "And people like big fish," says Jordan. "When we send them hatchery fish that are eight to 10 inches long, they are less impressed." Pallids take years to reach their formidable lengths.
Still, river managers and researchers hope their efforts will foster public support for the fish. With more species in trouble than cash-strapped public agencies can handle and the Corps' facing big budget cuts to its Missouri River Recovery Program, the effort to save pallid sturgeon may only continue if the public starts caring about their fate.
"I think (pallids') eyes are too small," jokes USGS ecologist Aaron Delonay. "Bigger eyes would Disneyify it a little." Delonay himself finds the fish "awe-inspiring" and "elegant." He likens their strong, shark-like build and the way they cruise along the river bottom -- something researchers can see thanks to advanced sonar technologies -- to a Formula One racecar.
Even if it's "not a beautiful fish to some," says Jordan, "it's been in the river a long, long time" -- before the dams, before humans were even around to build them. Pallids are a legacy of a river wild. "If (they're) not worth fighting for," he asks, "then what is?"