Saving the Great Lakes' biggest and oldest fish, the lake sturgeon

Jun 17, 2019
Originally published on June 18, 2019 6:39 am

The U.S. and Canada are working to restore populations of a prehistoric fish in the Great Lakes that was nearly wiped out. We went out with a crew of researchers to see what they’re doing to bring the sturgeon back.

On the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service vessel, the N’me, researchers are crowded on the small boat. They're headed to Lake Huron at the St. Clair River. Lake Sturgeon gather there.

We weren’t on the water long before a River tour ship packed with grade school kids pulls alongside.

USFWS Researcher: “Who knows what we’re doing out here today?”

Kids: “Fishing!”

They’d been taught about the research, but we’d not yet pulled in any sturgeon to show the kids.

A lot of fifth graders got the chance to see and touch a sturgeon at the annual Sturgeon Festival at Port Huron. Sheri Faust is an organizer.

“They're just so cool. They're so unique. Being the largest fish and they're rare you don't have opportunity to see these and these biologists are bringing that opportunity to us. So, other people see this fish and touch it, and look at it, and learn from the biologists,” Faust said.

She added that the kids learn about endangered and threatened species around the world, but they don’t realize there’s one just off the shore of their own town.

Sturgeon are ancient. The Tyrannosaurus Rex was around about 70 million years ago. The sturgeon was around another 70 million years before that. Instead of bones, this fish has cartilage like a shark. It has a sort of armored plating to protect it. Young sturgeons have these sharp barbs along the ridge of their backs that will tear your hand open if you’re not careful. These fish can reach 300 pounds and 100 years old.

But the commercial fishers in the 19th century had no use for them. James Boase with the Fish and Wildlife Service leads this team. He says sturgeon would tear up the nets of the fishers back then.

So, they killed sturgeons. The fish were used as fertilizer on fields, or dried and burned for fuel in steam locomotives.

“Sturgeon were the bad fish at the time, but (sturgeon) caviar ultimately was one of the things that they determined was of value. The smoked sturgeon was valuable," Boase explained. 

And then the sturgeon was overfished.

We’re out here trying to catch females with eggs and males to fertilize them. As a long fishing line is pulled in they find they’ve hooked one.

“Big one. Big female. Looks big anyway,” one of the crew yelled out.

We can see 20 feet down into the clear water. A couple of seconds later there was a chorus of "Oh," as the fish came closer to the surface. 

Several agencies on both sides of the U.S. Canadian border are collaborating to try to repopulate the sturgeon.

Justin Chiotti is another Fish and Wildlife Service researcher. He says they’re still learning about the sturgeon. They know they spawn in rivers. They’re going to place eggs or baby sturgeon in the Saginaw River in Michigan and the Maumee River in Ohio. They plan a couple of ways to see if they can get sturgeon to return to the same river when they’re mature.

“We're stocking fish from the Genoa National Fish Hatchery and Toledo Zoo where there's a stream side rearing facility along the Maumee River to compare those to stocking strategies,” Chiotti explained.

The researchers tag every fish with an external tag for commercial fishers to report and a sonic tag for other researchers to find. They want a better idea of how many sturgeon there are and how far they travel.

Darryl Hondorp with the U.S. Geological Survey surgically inserts in the sturgeon’s abdomen yet another kind of tracker.

LG: “This is a little like- in fact, it is open air surgery.”

DH: “Yeah. That's why we got to be- This is all sterilant. Make sure we keep the wound and tools as clean as possible.”

Hondorp says with these trackers they’ve learned that Lake Sturgeon actually spend a lot more time in the river than previously thought. Instead of just spawning, the trackers show some fish never leave the river.

The researchers are hopeful about the work they’re doing, but James Boase says they won’t know whether it worked for sure for a long time.

“Twenty years from now, so in 2039, we expect those 2019 fish to be mature, both males and females, and traveling back up those river systems to reproduce.”

The tour ship again pulled alongside with more school kids. After showing them a 50 pounder, Chiotti asked me to help him lift an even larger one.

Chiotti: “You guys want to see a bigger one?

Kids: Yeah!

That sturgeon was 88 pounds.

The kids screamed when they saw how big it was.

These kids learning about Lake Sturgeon today will be adults when — and if — this sturgeon restoration project works.

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