With an armored spine of bony plates on an otherwise sleek body, the Michigan native lake sturgeon is often referred to as a living fossil.
Once roaming the waters over 170 million years ago, this prehistoric fish continues to lurk along the shorelines of the Great Lakes and its tributaries. The monstrous lake sturgeon — though slow growing — can reach lengths of three to seven feet long and weigh as much as 200 pounds.
Even though they outlive every other fish species in Michigan, in less than one of these lake sturgeons’ lifetimes, the fish have been nearly brought to extinction from overfishing. Recently, on the morning of Aug. 23, 2019, volunteers gathered along the shoreline of the Tittabawassee River to participate in the release of 130 juvenile sturgeons in effort to begin to revitalize the Saginaw Basin Watershed population.
The effort aims to reestablish the lake sturgeon to the Tittabawassee, Cass, Shiawassee, and Flint rivers.
One of the many partners that attended and spoke at the Midland release event was Mike Kelly, Director of The Conservation Fund Great Lakes Office. Kelly commented on the importance of restoring this native fish.
“Sturgeon are an amazing native species; they’ve been around for 170 million years so they truly are a dinosaur,” says Kelly. “Since we eradicated them from the system, it’s our responsibility to bring them back.”
The Saginaw Bay Watershed Lake Sturgeon Reintroduction Program was established in 2018 as a collaborative effort to reestablish the lake sturgeon to the Tittabawassee, Cass, Shiawassee, and Flint rivers.
Juvenile sturgeon ready for release.
In the 1800s, lake sturgeons were labeled as a nuisance after repeatedly damaging commercial fishing equipment. Their thrashing and bulky bodies would tangle nets and reduce opportunities to catch desirable lake trout and whitefish.
The sturgeon population plummeted from years of over-fishing and increased threats to spawning habitats due to dam construction, sedimentation from farming, and industrial pollution from logging. A native species that was once historically abundant in the Great Lakes is now estimated at 1% of the record population.
Presently, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has labeled Michigan’s largest and oldest fish species as threatened — with commercial fishing prohibited and regulated recreational fishing.
Efforts to restore the sturgeons’ habitat began with dam removals back in the 1900s and continues to this day along with other restoration projects evolving to include streamside rearing facilities — allowing juvenile sturgeon to imprint on the river water eventually returning to the target area as mature adults.
However, Kelly explains the lake sturgeons aren’t the only species benefitting from these restoration projects.
Raising sturgeon has also entered the educational system as nearly 20 schools in Michigan have adopted the Sturgeon in the Classroom program.
“Lake sturgeon have helped drive the removal of dams and other restoration projects to help provide native and historical spawning grounds,” explains Kelly. “Everything that’s good for sturgeon restoration is crucial to other important species including walleye, bass, and many others.”
Raising sturgeon has also entered the educational system as nearly 20 schools in Michigan have adopted the Sturgeon in the Classroom program, developed by the Sturgeon for Tomorrow Michigan Chapter. The program aims to instill conservation stewardship as part of a place-based education, by engaging students in learning about their local watershed and threatened fish species.
The selected schools have the opportunity to raise juvenile sturgeon for the school year before being released. Students take on responsibilities for maintaining the tank, testing the water quality, and feeding the finger-sized sturgeon. Currently, three classrooms in the Saginaw Bay Watershed participate in the program – White Pine Middle School in Saginaw Township, St. Lorenz School in Frankenmuth, and Bay Western Middle School in Bay City.
Locals of all ages gathered on the banks of the Caldwell Municipal Boat Launch in Midland on the morning of Aug. 23. The release, hosted by the Chippewa Nature Center, was the first of four reintroduction locations. Using fish reared from both the Black River Streamside Rearing Facility in Michigan and the Genoa Fish Hatchery in Wisconsin, between 125 and 130 juveniles were also released the same day on the Shiawassee River at Cole Park (Chesaning, MI), on Cass River at the Gunzenhausen Walkway (Frankenmuth, MI), and a private release on the Flint River.
Volunteers gather in Midland to release the sturgeon in August.
“It’s truly incredible to be part of the team helping with the reintroduction of lake sturgeon into the Tittabawassee River and the Saginaw Bay Watershed,” says Dennis Pilaske, Executive Director of the Chippewa Nature Center. “The juvenile sturgeon released into the river by children and adults will need 20 years to mature and return to the spawn, and I’m filled with hope that so many federal, state, and local partners are committed to working together for the benefit of the Great Lakes, the Saginaw Bay Watershed, and our local rivers. Public response to these releases has been excellent and we’re looking forward to being involved with future releases.”
During the event, the young sturgeon anxiously awaited in buckets as participants gathered to be part of history. Juveniles are fitted with a tiny microchip called a PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tag located underneath their skin. Whenever recaptured, the lake sturgeon’s tag can be scanned and logged to track the travel and survival rates.
The juveniles won't stay long in the rivers, as they will likely travel out of the watershed and into Lake Huron to mature — a process that can take anywhere from 15-20 years.
One by one, cupped hands carried the squirmy fins into the water to be released into their new homes. The juveniles won’t stay long in the rivers, as they will likely travel out of the watershed and into Lake Huron to mature — a process that can take anywhere from 15-20 years. Sturgeons released this year won’t return to the river to spawn until 2039.
“We’re doing this knowing that it’ll be at least 15 years before we can expect to see some of these fish reach an age of maturity,” explains Doug Larson, Research Assistant at MSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “There’s a lot of competence put into the idea that we’re doing a lot of work now, knowing that the returns may not come until most of us are late in our careers or already done.”
Elan Lipschitz, Director of Land Conservation for The Little Forks Conservancy in Midland attended the morning’s event with his daughter Sydney.
“This project shows such great commitment to help improve our local rivers and lakes while returning this native fish to the watershed,” says Lipschitz. “Seeing my daughter release a sturgeon into the Tittabawassee River is one of the highlights of my year. Hopefully, she will see how her efforts play a part in the bigger picture of the Saginaw Bay Watershed.”
Release events will occur for the next 20 years, reintroducing thousands of lake sturgeon and sustaining efforts to restore the Saginaw Bay Watershed.
Meaghan Gass, Michigan Sea Grant Extension Educator with MSU Extension with a sturgeon for release.
Michigan Sea Grant Extension Educator with MSU Extension, Meaghan Gass, commented on the development of a new program that will get more involvement within the community and help fund educational programs.
“The partnership is really excited about its plans to launch an Adopt-a-Sturgeon program. By ‘adopting’ a sturgeon released into the Saginaw Bay Watershed, people receive the PIT tag number of a released fish and, if recaptured, receive an update on the status of ‘their’ fish. Money from the adoptions will support food for rearing the fish and connected education opportunities including the Sturgeon in the Classroom program.”
The release, hosted by the Chippewa Nature Center, was the first of four reintroduction locations.
Learn more about the lake sturgeon restoration efforts here: https://www.saginawbaysturgeon.org/
Led by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, this effort was broadly supported by a variety of partners including Bay County Environmental Affairs and Community Development, City of Frankenmuth, Chippewa Nature Center, Flint River Watershed Coalition, Frankenmuth Morning Rotary Club, Frankenmuth School District’s Chief Science Officers, Friends of the Shiawassee River, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Sea Grant, Michigan State University Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, MSU Extension, Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network, Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, Saint Lorenz School, Sturgeon for Tomorrow – Black Lake Chapter, The Conservation Fund, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.