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Sturgeon battles back to repopulate Lake Erie, lower Niagara River

The lake sturgeon’s ancestors traversed the world’s ancient sea bottom at a time when Tyrannosaurus Rex battled Triceratops on land.

Fast-forward tens of millions of years, and this ancient fish species – which was nearly eradicated from Lake Erie by 20th century overfishing, pollution and habitat degradation – appears to be battling back against a dinosaur’s fate, repopulating waters off the Queen City and along New York State’s shoreline in greater and greater numbers.

“There has been a natural recovery in the lower Niagara River and Lake Erie,” said Lisa Holst, who specializes in rare fish research for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The lake sturgeon, she said, has hit “a critical point in their re-emergence” that may regularly put them face-to-face with anglers.

“They’re kind of a living dinosaur,” Holt said. “They’re so different, they look partly like a shark, partly like an alligator.”

Modern-day encounters with this prehistoric creature are already occurring both locally and all around Lake Erie.

A Dunkirk-based DEC fisheries project captured 50 sturgeon in just two days earlier this year, using mesh gill nets around Buffalo harbor. And several fishermen have come across the crude-looking, bony-plated “fossil fish” amid the shoals and breakwater of the Buffalo Harbor during the spring spawning season over the last five or so years, Holst said.

Others have experienced similarly close encounters, according to reports from around Lake Erie.

A fisherman in Painesville, Ohio, pulled a nearly 4-foot-long sturgeon from the lake’s waters last month. Another, near Erie, Pa., achieved the same feat last year. A year before that, a sturgeon was caught offshore near Cleveland. And, in 2009, a 3-foot sturgeon was snagged and released in nearly 50 feet of water off Presque Isle near Erie, Pa.

“It’s incredibly encouraging,” said Dimitry Gorsky, a fish biologist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose Basom office fields up to 30 reports of lake sturgeon encounters every season. “Definitely, the fish are a lot more visible now, which means the populations are doing relatively well,” he said.

Making a recovery

Both environmental and circumstantial factors contribute to the lake sturgeon’s recovery.

First came the Clean Water Act of 1972 and legal prohibitions against capturing the lake sturgeon that became effective a few years later.

Then came other factors, including restoration of spawning habitat, controls on sea lamprey populations and the rapid proliferation of the zebra and quagga mussels in the lakes.

Lamprey attacks often prove fatal to younger sturgeon under 5 years old while the pesky invasive mussels have provided the bottom-feeding sturgeon a virtual smorgasbord of food.

“It turns out lake sturgeon really like zebra mussels,” Holst said.

Sturgeon search for food by dragging their four barbels along the lake bottom, then extending their tube-shaped mouths and “vacuuming” up prey. Besides a large diet of zebra and quagga mussels, sturgeon also feed on snails, crustaceans, aquatic insects and the invasive round goby. Divers can often tell if a sturgeon has been in the area, Gorsky said, by finding vast empty voids among an otherwise sea of zebra mussels on the lake bottom.

Had the sturgeon maintained its historical numbers in Lake Erie, the invasive zebra mussel might never have proliferated in the first place, Gorsky suggests. Experts also believe future restoration of the lake sturgeon in greater numbers is unlikely to have any large effect on other lake fish or the balance of the lake’s ecosystem.

“They don’t really impact the other fish species,” said Tom Brooking, founder of the Syracuse-based organization New York Sturgeon for Tomorrow and a fisheries research support specialist for Cornell University. “They really eat very few fish, other than minnows.”

‘Bald eagle of fish’

Lake sturgeon are among the largest fish in the lake and have changed little in structure over more than 130 million years.

They can grow up to 7 feet long or more and weigh more than 300 pounds. Some of the fish have even been known to live more than 100 years.

That’s part of what fascinates so many.

“Lake sturgeon are the kings of freshwater fish. They’re the keystone species,” Brooking said. “They’re like the bald eagle of fish. They’re very recognizable and very large.”

They once were so plentiful that early explorers in the Great Lakes region marveled at the lake sturgeon’s size and numbers. Samuel de Champlain, the 17th century French explorer, initially mistook the fish for a monster on the lake that now bears Champlain’s name, according to Vermont author and historian James P. Millard.

This species that had flourished for millions of years remained plentiful across the lakes through the late 19th century but was brought to its fins by humans in just a half-century’s time.

A voracious demand for caviar and smoked sturgeon flesh resulted in overfishing, Gorsky said. Also contributing were dams in channels that restricted the sturgeon’s access to its natural spawning habitat and pollution.

By the 1970s, most of the fish were gone.

The species was on the verge of extinction but wouldn’t be wiped out altogether.

“Sturgeon have never really left the lake, they’ve always been there,” said Dick Smith, the former Hamburg assemblyman and past president of the Southtowns Walleye Association, who said he’s snagged sturgeon while fishing on the Hudson River.

“It’s totally incredible,” Smith said of his encounter with the ancient fish. “This proves through good conservation efforts – by limiting the amount of the take and keeping habitats clean – we can keep our wildlife management going.”

Rough waters

Despite the lake sturgeon’s recovery, scientists say there’s still much to accomplish, and the fish remains a “threatened” species in New York.

It is illegal to seek, capture or keep a lake sturgeon. Any accidental catch must be released immediately. Federal fish and wildlife data lists the fish as “endangered, threatened or special concern” in nearly all of the states where it’s found. It is also protected in Canada.

The present sturgeon population is still only 1 percent of its historical abundance, fish scientists estimate.

“If they ever got to where they’d been historically, you’d be kicking them on the beach,” Gorsky said. “So, we have a long way to go.”

Although the lake sturgeon has a long life span, it matures slowly.

Females can take two decades to reach sexual maturity. After that, they can lay hundreds of thousands of eggs during a single spawning season. They prefer to spawn in cleaner waters with a current, such as the lower Niagara. The current scatters the eggs, which then stick to rocks or logs, according to DEC reports.

Young sturgeon are hatched in about a week, and during their first season can grow to nearly 8 inches.

The environmental conditions must be just right for all of that to happen, however.

“Females that are stressed out won’t breed,” said Holst, adding that a typical mature female sturgeon will only spawn every four years or so. “These girls are very fussy. If it isn’t just right, they’ll reabsorb their eggs.”

Those factors provide challenges for repopulating the species.

Decades of time and patience are required. And it’s why lake scientists and conservation officials are aiding the sturgeon both in New York and around the Great Lakes as far west as Minnesota.

In some places, including Wisconsin’s Lake Winnebago as well as the St. Croix River and bordering waters between Minnesota and Canada, the fish has returned to populations large enough to sustain extremely limited sport fishing seasons – a lofty goal for New York’s future, said a hopeful Brooking, but one that’s unlikely to transpire here anytime soon.

New York sturgeon

Conservation efforts in the Empire State, meanwhile, are forging ahead. Sturgeon management strategies here rely chiefly on geography.

In the state’s Finger Lakes region, wildlife officials are taking an “active management” approach in Cayuga and Oneida lakes, the Genesee River and tributaries to the St. Lawrence River.

DEC officials began stocking sturgeon in 1995 and since then have raised and released 65,000 juvenile fish.

Because of the long maturity process of lake sturgeon, the fruits of those labors are only showing up now.

That’s why there was so much excitement among conservationists last week when the DEC announced researchers captured a pair of wild juvenile sturgeons in Central New York. It proved scientists achieved successful reproduction among the fish they stocked. That was eagerly anticipated news following last year’s detection of an egg-bearing sturgeon in those waters.

“This is a truly significant event,” said Joe Martens, DEC commissioner. “It is a great example of how, with good science and great partnerships, we can restore a species that nearly disappeared from our state.”

From a conservation-management perspective, Lake Erie and the lower Niagara River are in wholly different waters.

Here, nature is making the sturgeon’s renaissance happen on its own although under the watchful eyes of scientists who plan continued sampling, data collection, analysis and monitoring of sturgeon populations.

Because of the fewer numbers of sturgeon in Lake Erie, it might spell a longer comeback for the species.

Experts believe those forms of natural regeneration are, in the long run, the most productive.

“A wild sturgeon can produce a lot more babies than we can do in the hatchery,” Holst said. “We don’t think there’s a benefit to stocking them if they’re coming back on their own. That’s the best form of recovery.”