It’s near the end of spawning season for Michigan’s oldest and biggest fish species, the lake sturgeon. Overfishing and hydraulic dams built to power industry have wiped out many lake sturgeon populations in the Great Lakes.
A group of people and government agencies are trying to increase the odds the kind of sturgeon specific to the Kalamazoo River will survive.
Sturgeon have been around since the age of dinosaurs. So they’re a lot different from other fish in the Great Lakes. They don’t have a normal skeleton. Instead, they’ve got these bony plates on the outside of their bodies, called scutes. They have no fish scales.
“They’re kind of rubbery on the outside and they are extremely docile, unlike the fish with the flopping and all that,” said Ron Clark. He’s with the Kalamazoo River Sturgeon Restoration Project out of New Richmond.
“They let you move them; they let you hold them,” Clark said.
Sturgeon are bottom feeders. They’ve got a snout with four barbels, like whiskers, in front. They compete with invasive species like zebra mussels for food in the Great Lakes. They only come into rivers to spawn.
Clark’s fished all his life and he says lake sturgeon are like no other fish he’s seen.
“They seem to have individual personalities,” Clark said, “There’s something about them that’s different than just catching the average perch or the average trout or the average minnow or something like that."
In most areas of the Great Lakes, the Lake Sturgeon are in trouble. There are only a few places in Michigan where there’s a big enough sturgeon population that you can legally fish for them; Black Lake, the Menominee River, Otsego Lake, Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River.
Sturgeon have been around so long, each river has its own sub-species that’s unique. The sturgeon born in the Kalamazoo River have different genetics and look a little different than those that spawn in the Muskegon River or the Grand River.
“What we’re trying to do is collect naturally spawned eggs and naturally reproduced larval fish and just enhance their survival so that they can maintain that genetic diversity,” said Kregg Smith, a Senior Fisheries Biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
It’s a tough job. It takes 20 years for a female Sturgeon to mature enough to swim upstream and lay eggs in the Kalamazoo River. Even then, Smith says females only return to spawn every four to six years; males every two years. Smith estimates there’s only about 160 adult Kalamazoo sturgeon left.
To help the Kalamazoo sturgeon beat the odds, Smith and a number of partners have teamed up to bring a mobile hatchery to the river bank in New Richmond.
Elliott Kittel, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, mans the mobile unit. He points out tiny eggs, about the size of a pencil eraser, in the bottom of a large tub inside the hatchery.
“They tend to drift towards the bottom. So they’re actually in the center right here,” Kittel said.
He points to a close-up picture of the slightly green egg on his laptop screen.
“You can see that there’s blood vessels. You can see that there’s some development. This isn’t a dead egg. So we have hope for it to continue to develop and we’ll keep looking after it,” Kittel said.
He’s got a big responsibility to raise these small eggs into 7 or 8 inch fingerlings by late summer. Then they’ll release them into the river.
“You know not to be cold, but I don’t want to be fired,” Kittel said with a laugh, “Also having done my thesis on sturgeon, it’s a thesis of decline. It’s a thesis that documents a fading of an entire taxon of fish.”
Sturgeon eggs are caviar, a delicacy to many. While there hasn’t been any poaching reported here, he says in other countries like Russia and China it’s a big problem.
“Their thing was over fishing, with the value of beluga caviar being thousands of dollars per ounce. So there’s no incentive for your average starving individual to not go out there and get a fish and make a million dollars off of it,” Kittel said.
In the Kalamazoo River, Smith and volunteers from the restoration project collected hundreds of eggs from the river this month. But only a dozen or so were fertilized. Now, after all that effort, only two juvenile sturgeon in the hatchery have survived.
Luckily the Kalamazoo River Sturgeon Restoration project is a long term one lasting 26 years.
In 2011 they released more than 150 young, healthy sturgeon in the river. They hope enough of these hatchlings will survive long enough to support a fish population in the Kalamazoo River that can sustain itself without humans helping them out.
This story was made possible in part by a fellowship from the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources.