Scientists and state officials honor underappreciated fish with Gar Week
You’ve probably heard of Shark Week—a seven-day deep dive into everything shark. But if you want to celebrate toothy fish a bit closer to home, you’re in for a treat. Earlier this month, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation celebrated its first Gar Week on Twitter.
Gar Week is the brainchild of Sarah Southerland, a social media coordinator at the ODWC. Since Southerland started running it, the Department of Wildlife Conservation’s Twitter account gained internet acclaim for its blend of education and charm.
Southerland said she wanted to use that platform to call attention to an important but underappreciated native species.
“Some people who've lived in Oklahoma their whole lives and love to fish are under the impression that gar are a trash fish, or they're invasive, or they're bad for their environments,” Southerland said. “Not by malicious means but just by what they've been told.”
Garnering appreciation for a native apex predator
To help teach ODWC’s Twitter followers about gar, Southerland teamed up with Dr. Solomon David. He’s a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Nicholls State University in Louisiana, where he runs a gar-centric research lab.
“He can talk about gar nonstop for four hours and not even miss a beat,” Southerland said.
David said his fascination with gar started when he saw a picture of one in Ranger Rick magazine as a kid.
“I saw this giant fish that looked like an alligator with fins instead of legs, and it looked like a dinosaur fish to me,” David said.
As a species, gars are older than the Tyrannosaurus rex, and they haven’t changed very much since that time.
“It's like they found this body plan that worked, and they've just stuck with it for millions and millions of years,” David said.
That body plan includes plenty of quirks: Gars breathe air, so they have to come up to the surface for big gulps of it. They lay toxic eggs. They’re covered in armored scales. And alligator gars can live over 50 years, often growing more than 6 feet long.
Alligator gar are just one of four types of gar that call Oklahoma home, along with the longnose gar, spotted gar and shortnose gar. Those species live in rivers and lakes in the eastern part of the state, and their range extends into much of the gulf south.
Fixing a garbage reputation
Their huge bodies and sharp teeth haven’t always endeared gars to people who encounter them. But despite their menacing appearance, gars don’t attack people. And even if they wanted to, their jaws are too small.
“There's also this thought that these are predatory fish that are negatively affecting gamefish populations,” David said. “They’ve kind of had this undeserved bad reputation because of that.”
Gars themselves are hard to catch with a hook, and most people don’t think of them as good to eat, although David says they’re tasty if you know how to cook them. So instead of celebrating them like bass or bluegill, people have traditionally tried to get rid of gars.
“In Iowa, up until the 80s it was illegal, if you caught a gar, to throw it back alive,” David said. “You had to kill it.”
But gars are a native species and they play a crucial role in their ecosystems. As natural apex predators, they keep other fish populations in balance and healthy. While gar populations in Oklahoma are doing OK, their habitat is shrinking and fragmenting. And it wouldn’t take much overfishing to devastate the species.
“It only takes something like 5-6%, and you start to reach this massive crash or move past points of recovery very quickly,” David said.
Even though wildlife management has shifted to recognize gars’ importance, some people still think of gar as a nuisance species. There are no limits to how many gars people can take with a fishing license, and many people hunt for them with bows, which is far more lethal than pole fishing.
Gars’ reputation as a “trash fish” means some people just throw them away.
“They take these large, long-lived species, and then just dump them on the bank,” Southerland said. “They probably do mean well, so you don't want to alienate people who do that. But we have the duty to educate.”
The Department of Wildlife Conservation provided that education with the meme-savvy humor they’ve become known for on Twitter.
For example, a tweet spoofing Coldplay’s “Yellow” segued into a lesson on gars’ enamel-like scales.
“It was just a bunch of normal people who were on Twitter,” Southerland said. “We're just really grateful that it was not only well received, but it seemed timely for people to be willing to open up to such an odd topic.”
“Gar’s a three-letter word,” David said. “It's easy to make all kinds of puns and have fun with it.”
(clears throat)— Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (@OKWildlifeDept) November 1, 2022
YOU'RE TELLING ME A GAR LICKED THIS BREAD?
Regarding the future
The Department of Wildlife Conservation gained more than 7,000 new followers during Gar Week. Southerland and Davis hope those new followers left with a new perspective on this native species.
“What's most important are the people who message us like, ‘Oh, I thought they were trash fish. Now, I don't think that,’” Southerland said. “And we got an outpouring of that.”
Southerland said the ODWC definitely plans on doing another Gar Week on Twitter. But they probably won’t do any real-life gar meet-and-greets anytime soon.
“We don't really want people to come in through the door of our building,” Southerland said.” We want you to go through the bigger door of being like, ‘What else is out here in Oklahoma?’”