CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — A throng of spectators lined the boat ramp under the Market Street Bridge at the edge of Coolidge Park as onlookers watched from above, witnessing the reintroduction of the Tennessee River’s largest fish on a hot spring day in Chattanooga.

A two-decade program to restore the lake sturgeon population is shifting to its final stages. The fish are preparing to spawn on their own in the wild for the first time since the population was eliminated in Tennessee in the late 1970s — meaning the program could come to an end over the next several years.

The Tennessee Lake Sturgeon Working Group project released its first sturgeon in 2000, reintroducing a species that had been destroyed due to habitat changes after the state’s dams were built (overfishing and pollution were also a cause). To date, about 200,000 sturgeon have been released in the Tennessee River.

The final hurdle — natural spawning of a healthy population in the wild — remains, but could begin as soon as next year.

Lake sturgeon can grow to be 9 feet long and 276 pounds. They live up to 152 years. Male sturgeon don’t reach sexual maturity until they are 15 or 20 years old, while females typically take between 20 and 33 years.

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