The alligator gar is the largest freshwater fish species in both length and weight found in Alabama. Their native range in Alabama is primarily throughout the Mobile Delta and coastal river tributaries of Mobile Bay, as well as free-flowing portions of the lower Tombigbee, Alabama, and Conecuh rivers. Their large, toothy mouth and hooked jaw somewhat resembles that of the American alligator; hence the name alligator gar.
Though they are a formidable predator, alligator gar derive a large part of their diet from carrion. The diet of adult alligator gar consists mostly of large, soft-bodied fishes; such as shad, suckers, carp, and mullet; as well as snakes, turtles, birds, and small mammals.
As with several aquatic species, habitat loss and degradation have led in part to declining numbers of alligator gar in Alabama. Their fighting ability, large size, and appeal as a food fish have also contributed to a reduced population in Alabama. From the late 1980s to early 1990s, commercial harvest of alligator gar was documented and occurred with a “noticeable decline in adult fish numbers” based on field observations (J. Zolczynski, W. Tucker, and K. Dodd, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, personal communications).
Before 1992, no limits protected alligator gar, which is actually classified as a “nongame” fish. Based on observations by biologists and interviews with commercial and sport anglers alike, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources made a decision to place a two fish per angler per day limit on October 1, 1992 (Alabama Regulation 220-2-.45). This conservation tool protects the adult population from excessive harvest by commercial anglers.
During this same period, biologist received an increasing number of questions from all over the country about this novel sport fish. This angler interest spurred further concern about the current status of alligator gar populations in Alabama. From 1996-2000, the Fisheries Section of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries funded an Auburn University research project to investigate the population status and life history of alligator gar in the Mobile Delta area. Population dynamics and management recommendations on alligator gar were made in a final report to the Fisheries Section.
Some highlights of their research revealed that alligator gar were a long-lived species with specimens reaching up to 50 years old. Males reach sexual maturity at age 7, and females do not mature until age 11, which is quite old compared to other types of fish. Because of their advanced age at maturity, alligator gar are more susceptible to overharvest. Adults spawn in fresh to brackish waters in beds of submerged and emergent aquatic plants. The very adhesive eggs stick to plant fibers until they hatch.
Because alligator gar are so susceptible to overharvest and are found in a very limited number of Alabama public waters, fisheries biologists wanted to consider options for regulating angler harvest. A public meeting was initiated to discuss population status, concerns, and ideas about alligator gar management. During October 2004, anglers known to fish for gar and members of several bowfishing clubs were invited to the District 5 Office in Spanish Fort to an informal discussion. Results from angler comments received at the meeting were as follows:
1. Anglers have a concern about the status of the alligator gar population and reduced success in the fishery in recent years. Angler groups often self-regulate alligator gar harvest well below the current limit. Some tournaments actually implement a no-take or penalty involved for harvest of alligator gar.
2. Most Alabama bow anglers harvest less than 1 alligator gar per year.
3. Hook and line anglers, a minority of the alligator gar anglers, primarily utilize catch and release.
4. Most anglers agree that alligator gar populations are diminished, but some feel that numbers are stabilizing.
One clear and interesting result of this meeting was that actual angler harvest rate was low. Thus, an updated regulation was proposed that satisfied both anglers and alligator gar recovery plans. Effective October 1, 2005, the bag limit changed from two to one alligator gar per angler per day (Alabama Regulation 220-2-.35).
In 2007, a management plan for alligator gar was written to outline options for enhancement and conservation of this species in Alabama. One objective in management of this species proposed collection of adult alligator gar for the purpose of developing captive brood stock for spawning, rearing, and release of juveniles in selected habitats.
During 2008, staff with the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries collected 21 alligator gar. With the cooperative assistance of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, these fish were transported to Private John Allen National Fish Hatchery in Tupelo, Mississippi, where biologists induced brood fish to spawn. All alligator gar brood fish were returned to the Mobile Delta.
Subsequent to the spawning process, approximately 2,000 fertilized eggs were transported to facilities at Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery in Warm Springs, Georgia, for rearing and developmental studies. Though it was feared that fertilization of eggs was not successful, staff at Warm Springs were able to hatch a number of larvae. These fish were then reared to an advanced size of 8- to 14-inches. To restore these fish to their known native range in Alabama, the surviving 159 juvenile alligator gar were transported back to Alabama and released within Claiborne Lake (Alabama River). This reservoir is the first dammed impoundment on the Alabama River, and this species was previously documented Claiborne Lake during the 1990s.
During 2009, a continuation of the previous year’s efforts yielded 15 alligator gar that were collected and transported to Marion State Fish Hatchery in Marion, Alabama. Brood fish were held at Marion and artificially spawned with the assistance of staff from both Private John Allen and Warm Springs National Fish Hatcheries. Spawning was performed in early May and eggs hatched a few days later. The larvae that survived to produce young alligator gar were reared to an advanced size of 8- to 16-inches at both the Marion and Warm Springs hatcheries. During July and August, 592 gar were tagged prior to release in Claiborne Lake. In addition, Fairhope High School students taking Ms. Megan O"Neill’s Aquascience Class collected data on and cared for 10 juvenile alligator gar. After five careful months of rearing to an average length of 13-inches, students released all the juvenile alligator gar into Ducker Bay on December 14, 2009. AL.com story
Future management work with this species will include a modest expansion of collection and restocking efforts throughout the documented range of alligator gar in Alabama.
Alligator gar are currently considered a “Regulated Nongame” fish and a “Species of Moderate Conservation Concern” in Alabama. In 2008, the Endangered Species Committee of the American Fisheries Society added alligator gar to its imperiled freshwater and diadromous fish species list due to extirpation or imperiled status throughout its previous 14-state range, http://fisc.er.usgs.gov/afs/. If you have any questions or information you would like to share about these fish, please call the District 5 Office at 251-626-5153 or email Dave Armstrong.
For more information about alligator gar management, visit the Southern Division of the American Fisheries Society page, www.sdafs.org/alligar/ .
Harvest of Alligator Gar during the 1970s