CAPE GIRARDEAU — Missouri scientists are trying to save the state's dwindling population of alligator gar, one of the country's largest and most feared species of fish.
For the past 12 years, the Missouri Department of Conservation has stocked the species in locations near the Mississippi River about eight times, KWMU-FM reported.
Alligator gar have declined in part because the state doesn't have strict regulations to prevent overfishing of the species, which resembles the alligator with its long body, large snout and numerous teeth.
Levees and dams separating the Mississippi River from the flood plain also block the species from reaching critical habitat, said Solomon David, an aquatic ecologist at Nicholls State University in Louisiana.
"We've really altered sort of the natural patterns of how some of these large river systems work and therefore prevent some of these species from accessing spawning grounds that they need in order to reproduce," David said.
Researchers have found that alligator gar need water temperatures above 70 degrees to spawn, which occurs in May and June. Flooding is necessary to push the species to seek out swamps and areas along the flood plain that have aquatic plants ideal for laying eggs. Water levels then need to remain high for several days so the eggs can develop into young fish.
Inconsistent flood patterns, levee building and river dredging are disturbing the species' ability to access the flood plain, said Salvador Mondragon, a fisheries management biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Mondragon has petitioned the department to list alligator gar as an endangered species to prohibit its overfishing. But the agency has largely rejected the idea because of limited public support.
Both David and Mondragon said alligator gar help bring balance to the ecosystem, in part by preying on invasive species such as Asian carp.
"For some states, that's the main reason they're stocking alligator gar," Mondragon said. "It's in hopes that they'll bring some balance to the exotics that are in the system."