Sturgeon are one of the oldest vertebrates on earth. The giant fish have survived for more than 150 million years. But encroachment by humans, and in some cases poaching, have decimated the fish in many areas, including the Great Lakes. Now the sturgeon is on the brink of extinction. That’s why hundreds of scientists from around the world came to Oshkosh, Wisconsin recently. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Patty Murray reports, they came to witness a sturgeon success story:
Sturgeon are one of the oldest vertebrates on earth. The giant fish have survived for more than one hundred fifty million years. But encroachments by humans, and in some cases, poaching, have decimated the fish in many areas including the Great Lakes. Now the sturgeon is near the brink of extinction. That’s why hundreds of scientists from around the world came to Oshkosh, Wisconsin recently. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Patty Murray reports, they came to witness a sturgeon success story.
The sturgeon is a really big fish. It can grow six feet long and weigh as much as two hundred pounds. Because of its size it faces few challenges from any other animal, except says Ron Bruch, from humans. Bruch is a fishery biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. He says most of the twenty-five species of sturgeon found around the world are in trouble, including those living in the lakes here. Years ago, he says the Great Lakes used to be full of sturgeon, but European settlers didn’t like them because they tore up fishing nets.
“Nets were very expensive back then they didn’t have the fancy nylon twine and all the other equipment we have today. So these big fish would get into the nets and rip them up so they didn’t like sturgeon. So they’d just kill the sturgeon, stack them up just to get rid of them. Then they found out the fish had caviar and there was a market for caviar.”
And that meant the sturgeon began facing another threat. Today, a pint of caviar can bring as much as six hundred dollars. That’s enough money to bring out poachers.
(Sound of boat on river)
So with the sturgeon population in rapid decline, scientists are eager to find ways to save those fish that remain. That’s why many of them came to Wisconsin this summer. While most of the sturgeon population in the Great Lakes has long since disappeared, some of the fish still survive here. So scientists gathered on the banks of the Wolf River to watch as DNR wardens plucked a few of the big fish out of the water.
Wisconsin’s Lake sturgeon population is considered to be the healthiest on earth. Sturgeon experts’ say that is because of a strong, two-pronged effort by state officials. First, they have a monitoring program. Many of the sturgeon are fitted with radio monitoring chips to keep track of how each fish is growing and where it is living.
(Sound of measuring, checking for chips)
Then, to make sure the fish remain safe, game wardens regularly patrol for poachers, and volunteers guard riverbanks during spawning season. That’s when the fish are the most vulnerable because they float close to the surface and can be easily speared. But despite these efforts, the state’s sturgeon population still holds a threatened status. Most of the fish live in the Wisconsin’s inland lakes and rivers, while very few remain in Lake Michigan, and it’s that fact which prompted a very unusual donation. An Italian count recently visited Wisconsin and learned of the fish’s decline, so he has donated two thousand dollars to study how to strengthen the population. The count’s money will pay researchers to go into Lake Michigan and Green Bay to see how many fish are left. They’ll also look at what obstacles may block restocking efforts.
Scientists hope what they learn in Lake Michigan can be applied to the rest of the Great Lakes. The money may also help fish elsewhere in the world. The count sent a team of Italian scientists to spend a week shadowing Wisconsin researchers. Darren McKenzie is an English scientist working with the Italians on preserving sturgeon in the Po River.
“Well I hope we can learn a few things about the techniques they use particularly with radio tracking and population issues. Because probably the Wisconsin lake sturgeon rehabilitation management thing, whatever it is called, is one of the best in the world for monitoring sturgeon population.”
For many of the foreign scientists, the importance of the sturgeon was brought home by a visit to a Northern Wisconsin Indian Reservation.
“Welcome to the Menominee tribal reservation. The way we look at it you’re people of the sturgeon just like we are-concerned about the sturgeon.”
For the Menominee, the sturgeon is more than just unusual looking and good tasting. The tribe’s relationship with the sturgeon goes back ten thousand years to the Menominee creation story. Before European settlers came along, the tribe relied on the fish for food and fuel. Then, in the 1890’s a dam went up downstream that stopped the sturgeon from swimming to a traditional spawning ground on Menominee land. Back then, tribal historian David Grignon says, the federal government would not let the Indians go off the reservation to spear sturgeon.
“It was denying us of a resource that we’d had for centuries. You know it was probably like the buffalo to the plains…. a way of life was gone, wouldn’t return anymore.”
But the fish are returning, since they can’t swim to the reservation anymore, the tribe is trucking them in. It is a long-term project. Sturgeon don’t mate until they’re at least twenty-five years old, so some tribal members won’t live long enough to know if their efforts have paid off. But if the tribe’s project and others like it are successful, then humans may claim credit for saving the fish once almost pushed to extinction. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Patty Murray in Green Bay, Wisconsin.