Fish biologist Jeff Finley conserves endangered pallid sturgeon

Sunday, December 1, 2013 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 5:39 p.m. CST, Monday, December 2, 2013
Fish biologist Jeff Finley works with MU students to help teach fish and river conservation. He uses special tools he helped create to catch fish, especially pallid sturgeon, so he can study them.

COLUMBIA —  It's a sunny fall day for boating on the Missouri River and a great day for catching fish.

Fish biologist Jeff Finley is on the bank, ready to demonstrate fishing techniques for MU students taking the fisheries management and conservation class he helped start 10 years ago.

Interactive graphic

The pallid sturgeon is scattered throughout the Missouri River but rarely found. Virtually all of the pallid sturgeon’s natural habitat has been altered by man-made structures.

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A dozen students, all wearing mandatory orange life vests, pile into Finley's boat, eager to see his skills in action.

He pushes the boat away from Katfish Katy Campgrounds in Columbia. The engine starts to hum and crew leader Adam McDaniel steers the group out onto the water.

In the middle of the current, they stop and Finley — with some help — slides a net into the water. After a few minutes, the crew gets ready to haul in the catch.

Blue suckers, smallmouth buffalo and shovelnose sturgeon are thrashing in the net. Among the mix is an elusive pallid sturgeon.

Finley is pleased to see the sturgeon, which has been on the endangered species list since 1990. Part of his job is monitoring the health and population of this rare fish in the waterways of the Mississippi River drainage.

Pallid sturgeon decline

Numbers of the huge, paleolithic-looking fish have been dwindling for decades. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the decline of pallid sturgeon can be attributed to man-made modifications of its habitat through river channeling and damming.

"Because of mankind intervention, we are forcing this species into extinction," Finley said.

The pallid sturgeon takes 15 years to mature and spawns infrequently, but it can live for up to a century. A single fish can weigh up to 80 pounds and reach lengths of 6 feet. Pale coloring is the reason for its name.

Fish biologists like Finley, who works in the Columbia Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, help ensure the endangered pallid sturgeon is here to stay. The government agency is dedicated to recovering the population through collection, testing, spawning and monitoring its habitat.

Pallid sturgeon are not naturally reproducing in their ecosystems, said Tracy Hill, project leader with the Columbia Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office.

Hill said fish biologists head out during the spring to transfer the adult, mature pallid sturgeon to hatcheries to produce spawn.

Finley, 43, was on the first crew from his office to ever catch a pallid sturgeon when he was a student at MU in 1998. During the entire year, the crew pulled up thousands of shovelnose sturgeon, but only one pallid sturgeon.

Finley also was in charge of the pallid sturgeon population assessment team before he deployed to Iraq in 2009 as part of the Army Reserve.

Now, with his wide knowledge of the sturgeon, he occasionally assists the crews who are recovering the spawning areas. He also leads a fish passage program that helps the fish migrate naturally in area streams.

He isn't the only fish biologist working toward conserving pallid sturgeon. Nationally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service collects useful scientific information about the endangered species.

"I'm a little fish in a big pond," Finley said. "I follow protocol on how to catch them and where to catch them ... and do sampling in a manner that would maintain scientific integrity."

Fisheries engineering

There is no typical day for a fish biologist. One day, Finley might be in the field collecting fish samples for surveys. Another day, he is helping crews on the Missouri River with pallid sturgeon recovery. Sometimes he is in his office, completing paperwork.

Finley also works as part of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Region 3 SCUBA team to maintain the health of mussels, primarily on the Osage River. Along with other biologists, he monitors native mussel beds and surveys bodies of water to determine their presence and health. Endangered mussel species like the pink mucket are spawned and then stocked in the river to increase the population.

A duty he particularly enjoys is fabricating gear in the welding shop, something he calls "fisheries engineering."

"I love welding, creating stuff, and making all of these things (gear) from scratch," he said.

Finley and others in the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office have been revolutionary in building gear to catch certain types of fish more effectively.

He developed a type of trawl that pushes a net in front of a boat and scoops up fish. It works well in challenging habitats — shallow water, grounds that are too soft or currents that are too swift.

The push trawl innovation can help collect fish in these tricky habitats. It can also be used to sample forage fish — called chubs — a pallid sturgeon's primary diet.

Finley helped develop the paupier net, used to catch invasive species like Asian carp.  Paupier is the Cajun term for butterfly, which reflects the net's design.

The Columbia office also does a lot of work with invasive species such as Asian carp, Hill said.

"We have developed the gear no one else has to catch Asian carp," Hill said.

Asian carp are not native to North American waters and can harm fish within its environment. Finley said the species are notoriously difficult to catch, and the paupier net is showing promise in experiments to reduce the Asian carp population.

Finley also built a sorting tray for mussels that connects to the SCUBA boat when the team goes diving in grounds where the mussels are endangered. He also devised a dive platform for safer and more efficient entry into and out of the water.

Co-worker Brett Witte works alongside Finley in the welding shop, but he spends most of his time on the Missouri River.

"We are making and remaking these things, so they are most efficient to catch the targeted species," Witte said.

Finley tries to do it economically, by salvaging parts of other equipment.

"I like to spend the taxpayer money like I spend my own money cautiously," he said.

Military experience

Finley is not an engineer by training; he learned while serving in the Army. When his job as a combat engineer was reclassified as civil engineer, he had to learn out of necessity.

He joined the military straight out of high school and was first stationed in Korea in 1989.  He met his wife, Anna, in May 1990, right before he was deployed to Desert Storm. After the war in 1991, he left active duty.

"When I got out, I didn't have anything," he said. "I sold my motorcycle to buy her a wedding ring."

Finley's plan after the Army was to attend art school, but a stern talk with his father-in-law made him realize he loved the outdoors and could make a living conserving natural resources.

Finley studied in the fisheries and wildlife program at MU, juggling school and work while helping raise three children.

He spent a summer as a technician with the Fish and Wildlife Service, then worked for the Missouri Department of Conservation operating its mobile aquarium. In February 2005, he returned to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Finley has been a member of the Army Reserves since 1993. He currently commands a preventive medicine unit. In 2009, the unit was deployed to Iraq for a one-year stint.

"Working on 25 years now (in the Army), I can't kick it. As long as I have good soldiers to work with and make a positive impact on the world, I don't want to give it up," he said.

While he was in Iraq, the Fish and Wildlife Service named one of its boats in his honor — Mustang 6, after his call sign in the Army.

The agency named an electric fishing boat after his Army unit, called Roman 6 for a favorite biblical chapter and his call sign in Iraq.

"I'm very honored they named it after me," he said.

Conservation for the future

The Fish and Wildlife Service does community outreach to try to get more people involved in conservation of natural resources, especially children.

"I appreciate nature, and I want it to be there for my kids and grandkids," said Heather Garrison, a biological science technician.

The agency works to educate the next generation about natural resource conservation by taking classes outdoors and showing them lake fishing and dutch oven cooking.

Endangered species such as the pallid sturgeon can become extinct without the efforts of dedicated fish biologists such as Finley. Fish populations have rebounded because of the work of fish biologists, said Doug Noltie, associate professor of Fisheries and Wildlife at MU.

"They are part of our natural heritage," Noltie said. "We share the environment with them, and therefore we are obligated to conserve it."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

To see an interactive graphic about the pallid sturgeon, click here.

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