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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A young sturgeon raised at the DNR Wild Rose Fish Hatchery. © Steve Fajfer
A young sturgeon raised at the DNR Wild Rose Fish Hatchery.

© Steve Fajfer

June 2001

Honoring the ancient ones

Biologists and the public alike want to restore lake sturgeon to their ancestral waters.

Lisa Gaumnitz and Jack Zimmerman

A slow recovery from decades of overharvesting
Sturgeon experts converge on Wisconsin
A collective plan to sustain sturgeon
Recovering a member of the tribe
Bringing sturgeon back to ancestral waters

A female lake sturgeon heavy with eggs presses her nose into a rocky reef in the cold, dark waters below a dam of the Wisconsin River in late April. Smaller males swim around her, watching closely for a sign she is ready to spawn. Anglers in a nearby boat jig fish for walleyes while 50 yards away, turbines hum in a powerhouse that churns river current into electricity.

Decades earlier this slow-growing, long-lived sturgeon might have roamed against the current upstream toward the headwaters of this great river. Now 26 dams tame the Wisconsin and block her upstream passage. So she has chosen this pile of rocks as the birthplace for a new generation of an ancient fish.

"Fossil records show lake sturgeon have been around for 100 million years," says Ron Bruch, a Department of Natural Resources sturgeon biologist. "Whatever killed the dinosaurs didn't kill the sturgeon."

Human forces proved more insurmountable than glaciers, drought and 100-year floods.

Dams, pollution, habitat degradation and overharvest have dramatically reduced lake sturgeon populations in many Wisconsin boundary waters over the past 100 years, and eliminated them from other stretches of water.

Late last year a coalition of sturgeon experts and enthusiasts wrapped up a plan that charts a course for managing Wisconsin lake sturgeon well into the 22nd century. That plan seeks to preserve the lake sturgeon inhabiting the Lake Winnebago system – the world's largest and healthiest population – to restore lake sturgeon to its former home, and to sustain it in other waters where it's common.

"Our ultimate goal is to re-establish lake sturgeon through their entire original range in Wisconsin," Bruch says.

A slow recovery from decades of overharvesting

Lake sturgeon are living fossils, relics from the Upper Cretaceous period of the Mesozoic era. They retain many of the same primitive characteristics from their earliest days: bony plates along the body instead of scales; a flexible rod called a notochord in place of a backbone; a long snout and a tubular mouth with no teeth. They cruise lake and riverbeds, using barbels that hang in front of their mouth as feelers to sense snails, insects, leeches, crayfish and small clams. Their mouth protrude to suck up such food.

Lake sturgeon rank as Wisconsin's largest and oldest fish: a record 195-pounder was speared in Pokegama Lake in Vilas County in 1979, a 170-pounder was caught with hook and line from Yellow Lake in 1979, and an 82-year-old was taken from Lake Winnebago in 1953.

Historically, they 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.

The Menominee, Winnebago, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, Oneida and Sauk tribes all revered the giant fish. But European settlers who moved into the territory in the 1800s initially considered them a nuisance because there were so many other preferable species available.

"They viewed lake sturgeon as a fish that caused problems for them – it got into their gear and tore up their nets," says Fred Binkowski, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Senior Scientist with the Great Lakes Water Institute who's spent the last 20 years raising and researching lake sturgeon in his laboratory.

It wasn't until after 1865 that settlers started to realize the economic value of lake sturgeon and started intensively fishing them. Sturgeon eggs, as the settlers learned, can be made into the famous delicacy – caviar – and their flesh is excellent eating fresh or smoked. Settlers also could use a gelatin extracted from the sturgeon's swim bladder to make jams and jellies and to clarify alcoholic beverages. The fish were also used for oil and glue, and their smooth skins were tanned for leather.

Dams built to float logs and harness river power for industry and electricity in the developing state blocked the sturgeons' spawning migrations and isolated their populations in many waters. Pollution and overharvesting also took their toll. By the 1900s, Wisconsin's lake sturgeon population had dropped to about 10 percent of what it was before European settlement, Binkowski says.

The state established a minimum size limit of eight pounds in 1903. That modest regulation, followed in 1915 by the closure of the harvest season, planted the seeds of the world's first sturgeon management program.

Legal harvests began again in 1931 on the Lake Winnebago system with the first regulated spearing season. The first professional biologists were hired in the 1940s. Since that time, state fisheries biologists, conservation wardens and sturgeon enthusiasts have tweaked season structures and rules to better protect the lake sturgeon populations, particularly adult spawning females, Bruch says.

Female lake sturgeon do not sexually mature and start producing eggs until they are 20 to 25 years old, and then they spawn only once every four to six years. Males mature when they're about 12-15 years old and 45 inches long. Most of them spawn every other year.

A population can take generations to recover under such a timetable. So DNR limits the harvest to five percent or less of the estimated population, and in 1999, working with a citizen advisory group, established a cap system on Lake Winnebago to further control the harvest.

Harvest totals had been increasing as the number of spearers grew and better water clarity led to better spearing conditions. Now the spearing season shuts down at the end of the next day after spearers hit 80 percent of one of three caps: 400 adult females; 400 juvenile females; or 1,350 adult males.

With the help of Sturgeon For Tomorrow, a conservation group that Bill Casper and other sturgeon spearers founded in 1977, wardens have significantly reduced poaching on the Lake Winnebago-Wolf River System. The group, now 2,500 members strong, helps organize, pay for, and serve on round-the-clock patrols to guard spawning sturgeon along the Wolf River.

Its four chapters also fund projects to install rock riprap to improve spawning sites along the Wolf River, Casper says. Where there once were about 12 natural spawning sites, there are now 50 to 60.

"We have the best self-sustaining population of lake sturgeon in the world right here in this system," Casper says. "We want to keep an eye on it so we can go fishing and our kids and grandkids can go fishing."

Such vigilance among all parties has helped boost the number of spawning adults on the Winnebago System from about 11,500 total spawning adults in the 1970s to an estimated 9,000 adult females and 27,000 adult males in 2000. Lake sturgeon also are common in the Menominee River, Lake Wisconsin, the St. Croix River to the Gordon Dam, Namekagon River below the Trego Dam, and the Chippewa and Flambeau rivers.

"Through good sound regulations and good sound biological management, Wisconsin has succeeded in preserving this valuable treasure," Binkowski says. "Its program is a model for the world."

Sturgeon experts converge on Wisconsin

That model will be on display July 8-13 when 250 sturgeon scientists, specialists and commercial interests from more than 20 countries gather in Oshkosh for the 4th International Sturgeon Symposium. Participants will spend a week discussing the latest sturgeon research and management activities, including cooperative research Wisconsin DNR is conducting with its neighbors on the Menominee River. Here, experiments with fish passages and varying water flows may help lake sturgeon overcome the barriers of dams.

Fisheries crews collect sturgeon just below the Dells. The fish are held in tanks for a few days while they are hand-spawned; the eggs are then taken to the Wild Rose hatchery for raising. © Ann Whipp
Fisheries crews collect sturgeon just below the Dells. The fish are held in tanks for a few days while they are hand-spawned; the eggs are then taken to the Wild Rose hatchery for raising.

© Ann Whipp

Participants also will get a window onto lake sturgeon management and culture in Wisconsin. They'll tour Binkowski's laboratory, where he's unraveled the secrets to successfully propagate lake sturgeon and has since moved on to learning more about the fish's early life cycle, feeding habits, and reproduction.

Symposium participants will visit DNR's Wild Rose State Hatchery, where Steve Fajfer and his crews now annually raise 40,000 fingerlings. The intensive process includes daily cleaning of the sturgeons' tanks, and a diet of brine shrimp and other live food instead of commercial feed pellets.

The participants will visit spawning sites created by putting down riprap, and they'll be honored guests at a traditional feast and sturgeon dance on the Menominee Reservation.

The conference also will focus on the growing threat posed by international black markets for caviar. With sturgeon populations in Russia dwindling and poaching rampant there, Wisconsin sturgeon biologists worry that unscrupulous caviar dealers may start targeting Lake Winnebago's stocks to meet the demand for premium caviar. They fear the threat could be compounded by the Wisconsin aquaculture industry's desire to raise lake sturgeon for commercial sale and to repeal an 85-year-old ban on selling Wisconsin lake sturgeon eggs and flesh.

Having a legal market for sturgeon would provide poachers an easy way to get rid of illegally harvested wild lake sturgeon. Allowing live sturgeon to be sold into the aquarium industry also could introduce new parasites, diseases and genetic dilution into the species, researchers say.

"We're looking to what may happen to our stock 10, 20, 30 years down the road," Bruch says. "Any move to commercialize the species is not a good thing for lake sturgeon or Wisconsin citizens."

A collective plan to sustain sturgeon

Some of these issues helped spur a broad group of lake sturgeon experts to come together as a team to evaluate and update Wisconsin's goals for managing lake sturgeon populations, and to forecast the obstacles they'd need to overcome, according to Karl Scheidegger, a DNR fisheries biologist who coordinated the effort.

Representatives from the Department of Natural Resources, Sturgeon for Tomorrow, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Menominee Tribe, the University of Wisconsin System, the aquaculture industry, several private sporting organizations, the sport fishing industry, and the angling public participated. Sturgeon Management Assessment Team members recommended the following actions:

  • Develop standard techniques to assess populations, catches and harvests

  • Identify critical season habitats and habitat improvement opportunities

  • Review stocking and reintroduction proposals to ensure genetic integrity is maintained

  • Create a separate license fee for hook-and-line sturgeon fisheries

  • Restrict all sturgeon species propagation to the State of Wisconsin and federal, tribal and commercial aquaculture under a cooperative agreement for research and rehabilitation

  • Implement the statewide lake sturgeon management plan.

The statewide plan builds on or complements a handful of existing restoration efforts and recognizes the unique circumstances that may require different approaches on different waters.

One project the Department of Natural Resources is working on with the Menominee Indian Tribe, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. It aims to restore a self-sustaining population to the Upper Wolf River. Last October, these partners transferred sturgeon from the Lower Wolf in accordance with the Menominee Reservation Lake Sturgeon Management Plan. The partners have transferred 80 sturgeon in the past five years and are on the verge of establishing an active spawning stock in a section of the Wolf River that has not seen spawning sturgeon in may decades.

Recovering a member of the tribe

Tribal history indicates the last sturgeon disappeared from tribal waters in the 1950s, 30 years after the second of two dams was erected on the Wolf River that cuts the Menominee off from a fish that played a central role in their cultural and spiritual lives, according to Doug Cox, environmental specialist, tribal member and a member of the statewide assessment team.

Lake sturgeon are part of the Menominee creation story. Every spring, as sturgeon gathered by Keshena Falls, tribal members would also gather to celebrate the sturgeons' return with a ceremony of dance, drumming and a feast. Neighbors would be invited to come and participate, and would be given a fish to take home in their wagon. The celebration continues to this day, with fish the Department of Natural Resources provides the tribe for that purpose by agreement.

The tribe hopes they will soon be able to get their own fish from their own reservation's waters. In accordance with the plan, they have set a goal of establishing and maintaining a self-sustaining population of 500 fish within the Wolf River segment that flows through the reservation.

"The tribe looks at lake sturgeon as a component of itself," Cox says. "When one of those components is missing, there's something that just isn't right – and that's what's important to the tribe, not that the fish are there for the taking, but that they exist and are sustained."

Bringing sturgeon back to ancestral waters

Sturgeon are also being restored to the Wisconsin River from Stevens Point to Lake Du Bay in a different way. Fishery biologists wanted to bring back sturgeon to this stretch of the river without introducing new strains of the fish. In the fall of 1991 and 1992, fisheries crews set large-mesh entanglement nets in Lake Wisconsin, captured and transferred 182 sturgeon ranging in size from 20 to 40 inches. Those first were transferred to the Stevens Point Flowage near their upper range, as documented in historical records. That stretch of the river had excellent habitat for the newly transplanted fish to reproduce and grow.

Biologists knew that as their population increased, sturgeon would eventually pass downstream over the dams and repopulate the remaining portions of the river. Regulations were changed to close the river to sturgeon fishing in an attempt to keep the new arrivals from being removed by anglers. The biologists stopped the transfer project after two years, concerned about poor reproduction and possible overharvest of female sturgeon by anglers in Lake Wisconsin.

They came up with a new approach in 1997 to capture adult fish below the dam in the Wisconsin Dells, remove their eggs, and send them to the Wild Rose State Fish Hatchery for rearing.

Every year for the past four years, workers at the Kilbourn Power Generation Station at the Dells Dam have measured daily spring water temperatures and called DNR fisheries crews when sturgeon begin to show up below the dam to spawn, cued by rising water levels and temperatures.

Because spawning lasts for only a few days and it's nearly impossible for workers to be there at the exact spawning time, DNR crews capture some fish and hold them in tanks at the generating station until the fish are ready to spawn. When the fish are ripe, fish technicians massage out a few quarts of eggs from the females, place them in spawning jars, and add milt, or sperm, from male sturgeon. The few quarts of eggs stripped from one or two females do not hamper the natural reproduction that takes place in Lake Wisconsin. All the adult sturgeon are returned to the river.

Wild Rose State Fish Hatchery raises the fry in tanks where they are intensively cared for over the next three or four months before being stocked. A portion of the sturgeon fry raised at the hatchery is released below the Dells Dam to compensate for the eggs removed at spawning time.

The restoration plan, now in its fourth year, is working just fine. Thousands of sturgeon fingerlings are being raised and stocked in central Wisconsin. In time they will mature and spawn, and the homecoming for this ancient fish will be complete. Eventually when lake sturgeon populations have been restored, the river will once again draw those who want to catch or just watch the age-old spawning ritual of this remarkable, ancient fish.

Lisa Gaumnitz is an environmental writer covering water and fisheries issues for DNR's Bureau of Communication and Education. Jack Zimmerman is DNR's fisheries biologist at Wisconsin Rapids and leads the sub-team.