Fish and Aquatic Conservation

illustration of a Paddlefish

American Paddlefish

Polyodon spathula (Walbaum, 1792)

Cool Facts

Paddlefish have skeletons comprised of cartilage, not bone, like sharks. Paddlefish are filter feeders and feed by swimming through open water with their mouths open and allowing their close-set gill rakers to capture their microscopic food. There is only one other species of paddlefish in the world and this is the Chinese paddlefish or Psephurus gladus, which is found in Asia and can grow up to 300cm (9 ft., 10 in.). There have been reports of paddlefish living for 55 years. Ever wonder why consumers of sturgeon caviar would look to paddlefish caviar as a substitute? Well, both sturgeons and paddlefish belong to the same group of fish called Acipenseriforms. Apparently the eggs of Acipenseriforms must be very tasty.

SIZE: Large specimens have been reported to weigh as much as 199 kg. (438 lbs., 11.5 oz. and reach 221 cm in total length ( 7 ft. 3 in. in length). The eggs of an adult female paddlefish can easily weigh 9.1 kg (20 lbs.) or more.

RANGE: Mississippi River Basin

HABITAT: Paddlefish live in water deeper than 1.3 m (4.3 feet) in large river basins and their tributaries.

DIET: Paddlefish feeds on plankton, microscopic plants and animals.

Natural History

American paddlefish are a primitive fish that have inhabited North America since the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago. The American Paddlefish inhabits large, slow‐flowing, freshwater rivers such as the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Paddlefish are a long‐lived species.


The American paddlefish is classified as endangered, threatened or as a species of concern in several states within its historical range. Paddlefish were once the most important commercial species in the Mississippi River Valley. Unfortunately, U.S. paddlefish population began to decline shortly after commercial harvest of paddlefish peaked around 1900. Currently, only a few southern states still allow the commercial harvest of paddlefish.

In recent years, U.S. paddlefish resources have experienced an exponential increase in harvest pressure resulting from the collapse of the Beluga sturgeon populations in Eastern Europe. This recent pressure has resulted in the illegal poaching and harvest of paddlefish because of the high prices that can be generated by the selling of their eggs.

As a result, the American paddlefish was afforded international protection by being listed as a species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service efforts have played a key role in the conservation, restoration and preservation of this species. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fish and Wildlife Conservation Offices and the National Fish Hatchery System participate in the monitoring and stocking of paddlefish within U. S. waters.

Migration Behavior

The American paddlefish is a migratory species. These fish are native to the Mississippi River Basin and have been known to move more than 2000 miles in a river system. They also have the ability to move through brackish water where freshwater and salt water mix together.