Worldwide there are 29 species of sturgeon. Eight species of sturgeon are native to North America with only the lake sturgeon found in the Great Lakes. Lake sturgeon are a relic from the dinosaur age and are the oldest Michigan’s fish species. Male lake sturgeon live an average of 55 years. Females live 80 to 150 years. They can grow up to eight feet long and weigh well over 100 pounds. Some of the largest specimens now swimming in the great lakes were born prior to the start of World War II. Some of the fish being born this year will still be alive when our grandchildren have grandchildren of their own.
Despite their long lives, sturgeon are slow to mature. Unlike other fish, lake sturgeon have an interrupted spawning cycle. Females typically reach sexual maturity at the age of 24 to 26 years. Males become sexual mature in 8 to 12 years. While males spawn every 2 to 7 years females only reproduce once every 4 to 9 years. Spawning occurs on clean gravel bottoms from April to June when water temperatures reach 55 to 64 degrees.
Females lay 4000 to 7000 eggs per pound of body weight. During spawning eggs are broadcast into clean gravel or rock crevices on the river bottom. Eggs become sticky on contact with water which allows them to adhere to rocks during incubation. Sturgeon do not guard or tend to their young. Hatching will take 5 to 12 days dependent on water temperature. The eggs are vulnerable to various predators such as the round goby and rusty crayfish. Microbes and fungi can also attack developing embryos. Upon hatching the “free embryo” with the attached yolk sac finds refuge or cover in the substrate for 5 to 7 days until their yolk sac is absorbed. This starts the larval stage when they emerge from the substrate and begin dispersal by drifting, sometimes many miles, downstream at night to suitable nursery habitat offering food and protection during their first year. Mortality at this life stage can be significant in the absence of habitat that provides cover for the drifting larva.
Sturgeon have several defense mechanisms that help them make it through the early life stages. They grow rapidly throughout their first spring and summer. They have a mottled appearance that provides camouflage against the bottom and they develop five rows of sharp bony scutes making them less appetizing to potential predators. Each year after surviving their first winter the chances of survival increase. At some point in the first few years they reach such a size that the only predator large enough to have a significant impact on their population is humans.
By the early part of the Twentieth Century populations were greatly reduced by overfishing, habitat changes and pollution; all human influences. Lake sturgeon have been recognized since the Upper Cretaceous period, the time of the dinosaurs. They have been in existence for 136 million years and are considered by many to be living fossils. In the early to middle part of the Nineteenth Century lake sturgeon were found in all of the Great Lakes and were one of the most abundant species in lakes Huron and Erie. Information gathered at archaeological sites along both the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers indicates that Native Americans harvested many of them.
When the first Europeans arrived, lake sturgeon were not sold and were considered to be a nuisance by commercial fishermen because of the damage they would cause to equipment. These large fish were removed from the nets used for lake trout and whitefish and “stacked like cordwood” on beaches to dry before being destroyed by burning or used as fuel in steam ships. By the late 1800s, as Europeans developed a taste for smoked sturgeon and caviar, a targeted commercial fishery intensified. During the heavy fishing years from 1879 to 1900 the commercial catch of lake sturgeon in the Great Lakes averaged over four million pounds. In 1885 a maximum of 8.6 million pounds were harvested of which 5.2 million pounds came from Lake Erie. By 1929 Commercial fishing for lake sturgeon in Lake Michigan was closed after the catch declined to only 2,000 pounds compared to 3.8 million pounds harvested in 1879.
Commercial exploitation was not the only factor influencing the decline in lake sturgeon populations. Habitat loss has also been a contributing factor to the reduction of sturgeon populations. Sturgeon spawning habitat in smaller inland tributaries was destroyed as the landscape was denuded of timber by careless logging practices. Damming of streams for power generation and water control prevented access to historical spawning grounds. With the growth of our nation came pollution, first in the form of biological pollutants from raw sewage dumped into our lakes and rivers, then later in the form of chemicals. Consequent to the decline, only a remnant population of lake sturgeon remains today in most of the Great Lakes basin. Lake sturgeon are listed as endangered, threatened or special concern in 19 of 20 states throughout their range. The current population is estimated to be less than one-percent of historical levels with many populations in the Great Lakes having become extirpated. Most watersheds within the Great Lakes Basin have annual spawning runs of less than 200 fish.
In the late Twentieth Century there was a renewed worldwide interest in sturgeon conservation. In contrast to attitudes of early part of the century, sturgeon are now held in high regard. Lake sturgeon protection and restoration efforts in Michigan and around the world are as diverse as the watersheds where the fish are found. Most of these efforts involve the collaboration of large groups of stakeholders including state, federal, and tribal agencies, researchers, sportsman’s groups, non-profits and other volunteers.
On the Menominee River in the western Upper Peninsula five hydro-electric dams prevent sturgeon from getting up river from Lake Michigan to their prime spawning and rearing habitat. The Menominee River Fish Passage Partnership has developed an elevator system which is used to capture the fish which are then transported upstream in trucks. They can find their way back to Lake Michigan through sturgeon “slides” which bypass the dams.
In the northeastern Lower Peninsula at the Black River restoration efforts include the use of streamside hatchery and production facilities. Eggs are collected then brought to these facilities where they are fertilized and raised. This allows the young fish to imprint on the watershed where after being released they will return to spawn for many years. Every year in May volunteers gather at the river’s edge to learn about the fish and help protect them from potential poaching during the spawn when they are most vulnerable.
In the larger, deeper St. Clair and Detroit Rivers in southeastern Michigan rocky artificial spawning reefs have been constructed to replace lost spawning habitat. The Michigan DNR and the US Fish and Wildlife Service do setline surveys each year to monitor and track populations from southern Lake Huron down to Lake Erie.
There are three Michigan chapters of Sturgeon for Tomorrow; The Black Lake Chapter, the Kalamazoo Chapter and St. Clair-Detroit River Sturgeon for Tomorrow. Through a memorandum of understanding with the Michigan DNR the chapters have shared responsibility for administration of the sturgeon in the classroom program. Young of the year fish from the hatchery at Black Lake area transported to participating classrooms where they are raise by the students
during the school year. At the end of the year they are returned to the Black River. Teachers must have extensive aquarium experience or must have participated in the salmon in the classroom to be eligible. For more information, interested teachers should contact their nearest Sturgeon for Tomorrow chapter.
Michigan also offers a variety of unique fishing opportunities for lake sturgeon. Every sturgeon caught is “the fish of a lifetime”. Seasons and creel limits are set to allow a limited harvest, on selected waters, that is below levels that could have a harmful effect on sturgeon populations. All anglers must obtain a non-transferable lake sturgeon permit and tag prior to fishing for lake sturgeon. They are available for free at all license vendors. Upon harvesting a lake sturgeon, anglers must validate the lake sturgeon harvest tag, attach it to the fish and must register their harvest within 24 hours. Lake sturgeon harvest is limited to one per year per angler.
Lake sturgeon fishing season information can be found in the annual Michigan Fishing Guide. Catch and immediate release sturgeon fishing opens statewide on July 16 and ends on September 30 with the exception of several watersheds that have special regulations.
The earliest season is the spearing season at Black Lake in early February. It is Michigan’s shortest and most intensively managed fishing season. A small harvest quota is set each year. Anglers must pre-register to fish. All anglers must immediately report any harvested fish using their cell phone. When the yearly quota is reached the season is closed by signaling cannons and by a large staff of personnel on the ice that go shack to shack to make sure the quota is not exceeded. The 2016 season lasted just short of one hour. All fish must be brought in and registered at a portable DNR field office which is set up on the lake for the event. On the same weekend the Black Lake Chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow holds the Black Lake Sturgeon Shivaree. This fun event allows people other than just the anglers to participate, to learn about sturgeon and to support sturgeon conservation.
On Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River one lake sturgeon between 42 and 50 inches can be harvested between July 16 and September 30. Most anglers choose to release the fish to be caught again. Some tagged fish in these waters have been caught as many as four times. On these waters sturgeon may be targeted for
immediate catch and release through the months of October and November. Sturgeon fishing is prohibited on these waters from December 1 through July 15.
If you do not have a boat or would like to learn more about sturgeon fishing, the sturgeon fishery on the St. Clair River supports several sturgeon fishing charter businesses. Certain sections of the Menominee River are open to sturgeon fishing from the first Saturday in September until the end of the month. The minimum size is 60 inches. Targeting sturgeon is prohibited the rest of the year. A stocked fishery exists on Otsego Lake. It is the only place in Michigan besides Black Lake where sturgeon can be targeted during the ice fishing season. However, there is no spearing on Otsego Lake. Fishing is limited to angling methods only. The harvest season runs from July 16 through March 15 with a 50 inch minimum size limit. Fishing regulations are constantly being updated. For more detailed and current information be sure to check your Michigan DNR Fishing Guide http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10364_63235-274824–,00.html
Michigan also has a lake sturgeon cooperator patch program. All successful fishermen during the Black Lake Sturgeon season receive a cooperator patch. Others who report catching a tagged sturgeon are eligible to get one of these limited edition collector’s items. If you catch a tagged sturgeon you should record the tag number, the date, time and location of catching the fish and the length and girth if possible. You can report your catch at http://www.michigandnr.com/taggedfish/tags. Every few years 100 of these patches are designed
and manufactured. When stock run low another tag is designed. It is very special to have one.
Every year sturgeon are caught incidentally by anglers targeting other species. It seems that every year we hear about a fisherman catching one on the Saginaw River or St. Clair River while targeting walleyes. It is important to handle these large fish carefully to release them successfully. First, you should consider releasing them without bringing them into the boat or onto the ice. If you do remove them from the water, support the sturgeon horizontally. Do not hold sturgeon in a vertical position by their head, gills, or tail.
Minimize the time the sturgeon is out of the water. Support it in the water until it is ready to swim off under its own power. Michigan’s only lake sturgeon fishing tournament, The North Channel Sturgeon Classic will be held September 23 through the 25 in Clay Township on the St. Clair River. Michigan has world class fishing for walleyes, bass, muskies and lake sturgeon. If you have not tried fishing for them you should.
Lake Sturgeon are an important part of Michigan’s diverse resources and our heritage. Human attitudes toward these great fish have great impact on their ability to not only survive but to thrive. We must work to assure that they are here for our grandchildren to appreciate. If you can spend some time fishing for them you might catch the fish of a lifetime. If you do not fish for them you could always get involved with one of the Michigan chapters of Sturgeon for Tomorrow as a volunteer or member. They are ours to protect.