2012-09-27 / Outdoors

Sturgeon: Saving the ‘megafauna’

LANSING – First they were reviled. Next they were exploited. Then they were ignored.

Now, they’re almost revered. The status of lake sturgeon has changed dramatically in Michigan.

In the late 1800s, lake sturgeon were considered a nuisance by commercial fishermen, said Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist David Caroffino, who co-edited a revised statewide recovery plan for Michigan’s sturgeon populations.

“Can you imagine? You’re trying to catch a 5-pound whitefish and you get a 100-pound sturgeon in your net,” he asked. “The sturgeon destroyed their nets.”

There are tales of sturgeon being stacked like cordwood and burned, just to be rid of them. Then, not many years later, a market developed for sturgeon, both for table fare and for their roe for caviar production. Sturgeon became a valuable commodity.

“People were harvesting millions and millions of pounds out of the Great Lakes,” Caroffino said. “Populations were decimated. They disappeared.”

Overharvest was just one of the problems. Widespread habitat destruction – siltation from the logging era and the building of dams in prime spawning habitat – reduced natural reproduction to a minimum.

Sturgeon fell victim to a doubleedged sword.

Remnant populations “were largely ignored for much of the 20th century,” Caroffino said.

Although sturgeon were out of mind for most of the century, they were never totally out of sight. Because of their natural history – traveling up rivers to spawn, often in water no more than a few feet deep – sturgeon are readily observable, at least for a short period of time.

“In the last 30 years, we have been in a period of rehabilitation,” Caroffino said. “In the spring, there they are – and nothing else looks like a sturgeon. Sturgeon are the charismatic megafauna of Michigan’s fish world. They are our pinnacle species. They are the largest, the longest-lived, most unique-looking of our fish.”

Fisheries managers have identified 24 lake sturgeon populations in Michigan waters, only three of which are considered abundant enough to allow harvest. The state’s rehabilitation plan features five components:

• Minimize the harvest;

• Improve spawning habitat or access to that habitat;

• Supplement populations unable to sustain themselves by stocking;

• Suppress sea lamprey predation; and

• Engage the public to help.

Michigan’s most prominent sturgeon population is in Black Lake (near Onaway, in the northern Lower Peninsula). The fish were cut off from the Great Lakes by dam construction, but managed to hang on in the lake, where they provide a popular spear-fishery through the ice.

As the harvest fell over the years, fisheries managers tightened up winter fishing regulations. The five-day fishery was changed to a quota system. (Last year, the season lasted just a couple of hours before the quota was reached.)

Soon, an army of volunteers – calling themselves Sturgeon for Tomorrow – materialized, promising to do what they could to help rehabilitate the species.

Sturgeon for Tomorrow organized patrols along the Black River to prevent poachers from taking spawning adults and helped

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