Sturgeon are making a comeback in the Great Lakes Bay Region

In the Great Lakes Bay Region, sturgeon have been on the list of protected species for a few years now. With help from several preservation groups, though, sturgeon are making a slow, steady comeback.

Sturgeon are important to the region for several reasons.

First, while the freshwater sturgeon in the Great Lakes aren’t direct descendants of dinosaurs, they have been around since the formation of the lakes.

Meaghan Gass, an educator with the Michigan Sea Grant program, says the sturgeon has survived a lot of the changes the earth has gone through. Recently, though, overfishing, poaching, loss of habitat, and other factors have put the fish population in jeopardy.

“In recent history, we overfished them, or they were considered a nuisance species by many people, because their scutes (the scale-like barbs on their skin) could damage fishing nets and things like that, so they were speared and often just left on beaches or used as logs for fires,” Gass says.

Meaghan Gass, Michigan Sea Grant Extension Educator with MSU Extension, at an earlier sturgeon release event. (Photo Credit: Alyssa German)Gass says over the past two decades researchers from Black River in Cheboygan County have been studying the sturgeon and how the population has changed. Their research shows that years ago, sturgeon were one of the most common fish in areas including the Saginaw River system.

Secondly, Gass says sturgeon really don’t have any natural predators, so anything that harms them usually has a human influence. That makes the sturgeon population a good indicator of the health of the watershed.

“They are kind of like a biological sentinel,” she says. “They are a living indicator of the health of the river. So them coming back is a good sign for the health of the Saginaw River system.”

Thirdly, sturgeon are an important part of history and culture.

“They are also a culturally significant species for the Tribal Nations and tribal members around the state and region,” Gass says.

The Saginaw Chippewa Tribe calls the sturgeon Nmé, and it’s a tribal clan species, she says. The Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, the Gun Lake Tribe, are also working to restore sturgeon to connect back to their culture and their history.

For all these reasons, Gass says the fish are necessary to life in the watershed, making it essential that we restore their numbers.

Just over seven years ago, the Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network, the Michigan Sea Grant Program, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, and a handful of other organizations banded together to restore sturgeon to the Saginaw River system. So far, nearly 6,000 sturgeon have been planted in the rivers in the Great Lakes Bay Region.

“All of those went into the tributaries of the Saginaw River system to give them more time in the river system to imprint and make that place its home,” Gass says.

“All of them got the special pit tag, which is basically a passive tag that if that fish is re-captured and someone has a pit tag reader, the pit tag will show up and then they can connect that back to where that fish was stocked and when, and they also track all of the like length and weight of them when they're released.”

Some fish also were fitted with an acoustic transmitter. Gass explains that receivers along the Saginaw River bring up signals from the acoustic transmitters and follow the fish into the bay.

“Basically, once those receivers are picked up, they can get more real-time data about where the fish are moving, how long they’re staging in the river system, and going out into the Bay.”

The Saginaw Bay Sturgeon Restoration Program was established in 2018 to combat the declining population. (Photo Credit: Alyssa German)The fingerling fish that were released seven years ago are now up to about 30 to 40 inches long, says Mike Kelly, Director of the Great Lakes Office of The Conservation Fund. Sturgeon can live as long as 150 years and grow to over 7 feet long.

“By all accounts, they’re doing exceptionally well,” Kelly says.

Kelly says a lot like children, the fish grow quickly while they’re young, and then their growth slows down.

“They don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re 15 or 20 years old, so they won’t be back to spawn for quite a long time. That means the restoration process will take at least another eight to 10 years before they start to reproduce on their own.”

Kelly says the restoration plan for the sturgeon population spans 20 years.

“It goes through 2038, so it’s a long-term effort,” he says.

Kelly asks that anyone who catches a sturgeon release it back into the water. Kelly also noted he’s encouraged that anglers report catching larger and larger sturgeon. “I think we’re heading in the right direction,” he says.

In August or September of this year, another 1,000 sturgeon fingerlings will be set free in the Saginaw River system, Gass says. Those fingerlings face many dangers.

“Sturgeon are most vulnerable when they are in their early life stages,” she says.

Poaching is a problem when they are in the egg stage because of their value as caviar on the black market. When they reach the fingerling stage, they can be food for larger fish. As sturgeon mature, they develop a protective armor called “scutes,” that discourages predators.

To learn more about the sturgeon restoration project the Saginaw Bay Sturgeon website. On the website there are links to report catching a sturgeon or to help support the restoration by adopting a sturgeon of your own.

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Read more articles by Denyse Shannon.

As a feature writer and freelance journalist, Denyse Shannon has written professionally for over two and a half decades. She has worked as a contractor for daily and weekly newspapers, national and local magazines, and taught introductory media writing at her alma mater – Central Michigan University. She also holds a Master of Arts in journalism from Michigan State University. She and her husband live in Bangor Township and enjoy sailing on the Bay, and are avid cyclists.