The Gulf Coast strain of walleye is a freshwater fish renowned for sweet, fine-textured meat. Native to the Deep South and once abundant throughout most of Mississippi, it now has virtually disappeared.
A two-year research project under way in Mississippi State University's Forest and Wildlife Research Center is seeking to reverse that trend by restoring walleye populations.
While the walleye is the leading inland sport fish of Canada and part of the Northern United States, the Gulf Coast version is genetically different from its northern cousins. Inhabiting drainages of Northeast Mississippi, most of Alabama and Northwest Georgia, it can live up to 10 years while growing as long as 29 inches and weighing up to 10 pounds.
"In northeast Mississippi, the abundance of Gulf Coast walleye has been upset by habitat alterations such as impoundment and channelization,” said Hal Schramm, fisheries biologist in MSU's wildlife and fisheries department. As a result, he added, the fish now is rare in the Tombigbee River and the rest of the Mobile Basin.
In response to the observed declines, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks has developed a conservation plan that will receive assistance from Schramm and MSU research colleagues Anita Kelly and Steve Miranda.
"We will develop hatchery techniques to efficiently produce young walleye and identify methods to enhance the survival of stocked fish,” Kelly explained.
Miranda said the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources no longer stocks walleye and Mississippi only irregularly has produced and stocked the fish into tributaries of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a 234-mile north-south controlled course stretching from Northeast Mississippi to West Central Alabama. Recent surveys of the Luxapalila Creek in Lowndes County, one of those tributaries, found walleyes of hatchery origin, he said.
To improve hatchery and survival techniques, MSU scientists are developing a system to spawn, hatch and culture the walleye. Once the best method to produce fingerlings is determined, they will focus on developing the most effective method to enhance survival of stocked fish.
"Although strategies for achieving high survival of stocked walleyes in lakes and reservoirs have been extensively investigated, factors affecting survival of Gulf Coast walleye remain poorly understood,” Schramm said.
Miranda said the inability to locate and collect juvenile fish has presented a major challenge to their study in native streams. To deal with this, the MSU team will limit the stocking and search area to blocked sections of streams that discharge into the Tombigbee River.
Added Kelly: "Not only will limiting the area increase the success of recapturing fish after stocking, but this approach also could be a suitable restoration strategy.”