Lake Sturgeon, a Great Lakes Icon

Lake Sturgeon, a Great Lakes Icon
Courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Great Lakes Lake Sturgeon Collection
Courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Great Lakes Lake Sturgeon Collection

The Lake Sturgeon, Acipenser fulvescens, is a native fish to the Great Lakes, and is the largest endemic fish in the region, growing up to six feet in length and weighing up to 150 pounds. Lake Sturgeon are unique in their appearance, they lack scales but have five bony plates running along their dorsal side (the back of the fish).  In addition to their pre-historic appearance, sturgeon are also unique in terms of their biology.  These fish are long-lived, 80 years (females) and 55 (males); not reaching maturity until between 14 – 23 years (females) and 8 – 19 years (males). Their slow maturity rates have played a role in their susceptibility to over-harvesting for meat and eggs, as well as habitat destruction.

Currently, Lake Sturgeon are classified as threatened in all states where it occurs. Lake Sturgeon is a benthic fish, meaning they feed along the bottom, on insect larva, clams, and algae. Prior to 1900, sturgeons were considered a nuisance because of their tendency to foul fishing nets. By the mid-late 1800s, sturgeon were recognized as a valuable commercial fish. The average commercial catch of sturgeon from 1879 – 1900 was over 4 million pounds. The populations of sturgeon continued to decline into the 1970s. Today, various agencies work to restore the populations of sturgeon throughout its range.

 

Courtesy of National Geographic
Courtesy of National Geographic

Conservation efforts throughout the state of Michigan are working to restore sturgeon populations to previous numbers. The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians has a Sturgeon Rearing Facility (SRT) on the shore of the Manistee River. This facility collects sturgeon eggs and larva from the bottom of the river each spring and puts them in the stream-side rearing facility where they are fed and kept safe until the annual release. This year, the facility released a record 370 sturgeon! This facility was the first of its kind in the Great Lakes basin and has served as a model for other facilities throughout the state. The rearing of sturgeon can be difficult because sturgeon imprint the chemical components of their natal stream in order to return to it to spawn. This requires facilities to continuously pump fresh water into the tanks where the sturgeons are raised.

Emily Shaw, Contributing Writer

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Although I was born and raised in central Indiana, my heart has always been in the pinky region and I moved here as soon as I got the chance! My regular gig is at Inland Seas Education Association where I am the Education & Volunteer Coordinator. I teach Great Lakes science education aboard the schooner Inland Seas. I love all things Michigan, particularly the lake, beer and food but not always in that order. Drop me a line anytime to chat about science, the Great Lakes or anything else.