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Leaping sturgeon menace 'Swanee'

Florida boater victim count rises

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Boaters on Florida's Suwannee ("Swanee") river have come under increasing risk of leaping sturgeon attack during the last 18 months as low water levels continue to provoke serious collisions between the "armoured fish" and unwary humans, the Telegraph reports.

Florida police say that this year has been "particularly bloody", with five victims to date including 50-year-old Sharon Touchton who was piloting a jetski when she impacted with a sturgeon, suffering skull fractures under her eyes, losing a finger and a tooth and almost biting off her own tongue in the process.

The Gulf sturgeon in question, which can reach eight feet in length and boast "sharp, bony plates that can cut flesh like knives", are not aggressive by nature, scientists claim, but the boffins are unable to offer an explanation for their acrobatics.

The sturgeon menace has been compounded by the aforementioned low water levels as boats and fish have to share increasingly restricted patches of river. Sturgeon strikes were previously uncommon, but ten people were injured last year.

This 2007 tally of casualties so far includes the unfortunate Touchton, plus 32-year-old Tara Spears "knocked unconscious and taken to the hospital" following a piscine impact, and six-year-old Taylor Lane Owen who suffered a broken leg when a sturgeon jumped onto the boat he was sharing with 20-year-old Kelly Clafin.

Major Bruce Hamlin, regional commander for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's (FWC) North Central Region, told the local NewsHerald.com: "The documented strikes for 2006 resulted in the worst year on record, with eight people directly hit by sturgeon and two injured when they swerved to avoid a jumping fish and hit a bridge piling.

"However, the numbers for 2007 show a trend that could top 2006. At this point last year, there were three documented strikes, with three injuries. People need to be cautious when on the Suwannee. I cannot emphasize that enough."

Some boat owners have suggested the sturgeon, which in spring migrate from the Gulf of Mexico to the Suwannee to spawn, might be "removed" to contain the threat, but although they were once exploited for their caviar and meat, they are now a protected, endangered species. ®

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