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Gulf sturgeon leaps on the Suwannee River. Photo: Courtesy of the FWC

Early last summer, a 5-year-old girl was killed when a giant sturgeon leaped out of Florida’s Suwannee River and struck her while she was boating with her family.

This year, as thousands of prehistoric-looking gulf sturgeon are migrating back into the Suwannee for the spring and summer, authorities are hoping that advance warning will help reduce dangerous collisions.

“Be aware and prepared — go slow and wear your life jacket,” the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) cautioned on Facebook. “There’s no warning; sturgeon just jump and if a boater happens to be in the way when the fish is in the air, a collision happens.”

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What it looks like when a giant sturgeon leaps in front of a boat. Photo: Courtesy of FWC

The Suwannee sturgeon population of about 10,000 is by far the largest in Florida. The sucker-mouthed fish, which can weigh as much as 200 pounds, are beginning to enter the river from estuaries and coastal feeding areas in the Gulf of Mexico.

The threat they pose to boaters in the spring and summer is greater than that posed by alligators.

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Gulf sturgeon can weigh as much as 200 pounds. Photo: Courtesy of FWC

Over the past 10 years there have been 37 reported sturgeon strikes, and 37 injuries. Jaylon Rippy, the 5-year-old struck last July, became the first fatality from a sturgeon strike.

Her mother and brother were injured by the same flying fish, which launched into their moving boat at dusk.

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Gulf sturgeon leap to adjust pressure in their swim bladders, and to communicate with other sturgeon. Photo: Courtesy of FWC

Gulf sturgeon fast once they enter Florida’s rivers, living off fat reserves. They’re rarely caught by anglers or encountered by boaters, except when they leap. This is because most of their activity, including spawning, occurs in dark water on the river bottom.

Gulf sturgeon jump to help equalize pressure in their swim bladders (they gulp air needed to maintain neutral buoyancy), and to communicate with other sturgeon.

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A Florida researcher displays an adult gulf sturgeon before its release. Photo: Courtesy of FWC

The FWC’s warning comes as the leaping season is just beginning. The accompanying photos were supplied by the FWC as part of a news release.

Besides being asked to wear a life jacket, boaters are advised to travel slowly to avoid collisions and to stay clear of the vessel’s bow, which is where sturgeon strikes are most likely to occur.

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