WILD ROSE - Wisconsin's efforts to restore lake sturgeon to inland waters took a leap forward last week as the renovated Wild Rose State Fish Hatchery sent its first sturgeon out the door to new homes in four Wisconsin waters.
On July 7, DNR fisheries crews stocked more than 6,100 tiny sturgeon in the Baraboo River in Baraboo, returning the prehistoric species to that water for the first time since the 1800s, when dams built on the river, along with overfishing and water pollution, helped doom their populations. An audio slide show recording this historic return is available on the Department of Natural Resources website.
On July 9, another 7,400 sturgeon, spawned from fish from the Yellow River in northwest Wisconsin and raised at Wild Rose, were returned to that river, to the Clam River Flowage in Burnett County, and to Minong Flowage in Douglas County.
"This is really good news," says Ron Bruch, DNR senior sturgeon biologist and co-leader of the agency's statewide sturgeon team. "We have the Wild Rose facility online and staff have shown they can produce the quality and quantity of lake sturgeon we need to really look well into the future for our population restoration needs."
The second phase of renovating Wild Rose State Hatchery is about complete, giving anglers and the Wisconsin's fisheries program state-of-the-art facilities for raising cool-water fish including lake sturgeon, northern pike, walleye and musky.
Now, the sturgeon can be raised entirely inside tanks in a climate controlled building where water temperatures, dissolved oxygen, food and others aspects are carefully monitored by staff and by computers.
"It's like going from the stone age to the space age," Bruch says. "Before, we had little tanks outside, and little ability to control water temperatures and other factors. It was terrible. Those guys did a really good job considering what they had to work with, but this renovated facility really is state of the art and we expect it will let us stock more waters with more fish."
The renovated hatchery and the staff who run it are already having an impact. Sturgeon weren't scheduled to be stocked out of the facility until this fall, but so many sturgeon hatched and survived that some needed to be removed from the tanks to allow the remaining fish more room to grow, says Steve Fajfer, hatchery supervisor.
"The staff have done a fantastic job learning a whole new system and producing more fish, bigger fish and healthier fish," Fajfer says.
About 60,000 lake sturgeon remain at the hatchery and will be raised to the more normal sizes for stocking, about 6 to 9 inches for fingerlings, and 10 to 14 inches for yearlings. The fingerlings will be planted this fall, and the yearlings next spring, Fajfer says.
Waters planned for stocking from Wild Rose are the Menominee River in Marinette County, the Wisconsin River in Marathon County, the Wisconsin River flowage at Stevens Point in Portage County, Upper St. Croix Lake, Eau Claire River, and St. Croix Flowage, all in Douglas County, and the Namekagon River and Trego Lake, both in Washburn County.
Other waters being stocked with sturgeon in 2010-2011 include the Milwaukee and Kewaunee rivers, which will receive fish raised at streamside rearing facilities along those waters, and the Fox River in Marquette County from the UW-Milwaukee Water Institute, and the Manitowish River, which will receive fish from DNR's Woodruff Hatchery.
Lake sturgeon are living fossils, relics from the Upper Cretaceous period of the Mesozoic era, and they rank as Wisconsin's largest and oldest fish, confirmed again this winter when an Appleton man speared a 212-pound, 3.2 ounce lake sturgeon that stretched 84.25 inches on opening day of the 2010 Lake Winnebago lake sturgeon spearing seasons.
Historically, lake sturgeon were found throughout the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basin. They flourished in Wisconsin's boundary waters including the Mississippi, Wisconsin and Menomonee rivers, Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Green Bay. Dams, pollution, habitat degradation and overharvest dramatically reduced lake sturgeon populations in some Wisconsin waters over the past 100 years, and eliminated them entirely from other stretches of water. Because female fish don't reproduce until they are 20 to 25, and then spawn only once every three to five years, lake sturgeon populations are very vulnerable to overexploitation and slow to rebuild.
"Wisconsin's Lake Sturgeon Management Plan" (pdf) calls for restoring lake sturgeon to many waters in its historic range. DNR will be updating the plan this year and seeking input from people outside the agency interested in sturgeon management. Wild Rose Fish Hatchery will play a key role in that plan, along with protective regulations, research, dedicated funding for sturgeon restoration, and other factors, says Karl Scheidegger, a DNR rivers biologist and co-leader to the state sturgeon team.
"The new Wild Rose cool water propagation facility will give the fisheries program the ability to restore multiple sturgeon populations for many years to come," Scheidegger says. "And that, we hope, means that down the road more people will be able to experience these remarkable fish."
FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Steve Fajfer about Wild Rose (920) 622-3527; Karl Scheidegger about statewide sturgeon restoration (608) 267-9426