This Saturday, 35 baby sturgeon will be released into the Kalamazoo River at a sturgeon release party. It’ll be in New Richmond and it’s open to the public.
Lake sturgeon are ancient fish. They’re Michigan’s oldest and biggest fish species and can live to be more than 100 years old. Many populations of lake sturgeon in the Great Lakes were wiped out decades ago, but people have been working to bring them back.
Kregg Smith is a senior fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Raising sturgeon in a hatchery is no easy task, and Smith says it takes a lot of people pitching in.
"Well, the first thing it takes is a lot of partnerships with other agencies, tribal governments and nonprofit folks from the public because they are very low in population size, so it takes a lot of money and a lot of resources to collect the eggs and the larval fish from the river," Smith said.
It'll take decades to get the fish's numbers back to where managers want them to be
Smith explains that the sturgeon in the Kalamazoo River are genetically unique to the river. He says the goal of the hatchery is to stabilize the population first, "so we're trying to prevent the populations from declining until we can then later develop some spawning habitat in the river system," he said. "And then, our secondary goal would be to increase the population to a sustainable level that would allow for a recreational sport fishery."
Smith says the most recent population estimate for sturgeon in the Kalamazoo River is 112 individual adult fish; the goal is about 530 adults. It's an uphill battle to bring back that number of fish. "Given their life history characteristics, it'll take a couple more decades before we'll even start to see fish that we are releasing [now] return."
Smith says it's a slow process because female sturgeon take a long time to reach sexual maturity.
There are a few places in Michigan where you can legally fish for lake sturgeon because those populations are big enough. Smith says overall, sturgeon numbers in the Great Lakes region are improving.
"We're seeing better production at eight facilities around the Great Lakes basin," Smith said. "We're able to recover them through artificial stocking but we're also seeing populations that were at moderate to medium size; they're starting to increase with protection from closing the fishery as well as improvements in water quality."
He says kids who come to the sturgeon release party can help release juvenile sturgeon into the river. The event is this Saturday, September 6 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at New Richmond Bridge County Park.