NY: Encouraging signs for a sturgeon comeback

Buffalo, N.Y. – To the gourmet, they are the source of fine
caviar.

For the sportsman, lake sturgeon are a prized and rare
trophy.

And to the wildlife manager, sturgeon are a once abundant but
threatened species that may be showing signs of a comeback.

Lake sturgeon were once harvested in numbers that today are almost
incomprehensible. The sturgeon wasn’t fished completely into
oblivion, but its numbers were decimated in the late 1800s and it
remained a rarity in New York waters for generations.

In recent years, however, there have been encouraging signs that
may signal a reversal of fortune.

“I’ve worked on Lake Erie for almost 30 years,” said Don Einhouse,
DEC’s Lake Erie unit leader. “I do get the sense of a somewhat
building lake sturgeon population, because we now hear about more
incidentally caught sturgeon from anglers than we did years ago. We
occasionally incidentally capture a sturgeon now and then, but
years ago we never did, and reports of dead sturgeon on beaches are
becoming more common.”

Lake sturgeon are native to New York and are the only sturgeon
species endemic to the Great Lakes.

They have also been around a very long time. With an evolutionary
lineage that goes back 300 million years, the lake sturgeon looks
the part. Up to five feet or more in length and averaging 80 pounds
– with some specimens growing up to 300 pounds – the
torpedo-shaped, bony-plated sturgeon has changed little in
appearance since dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Prior to the mid-1800s, lake sturgeon were commonly found in New
York waters of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and the St. Lawrence River
and its tributaries. The vast number of lake sturgeon supported a
commercial fishery that utilized their eggs for caviar and flesh
for the table, along with other products that were popular across
Europe.

But lake sturgeon were vulnerable to overharvesting due to their
late maturation, irregular spawning cycles and long life span – up
to 100 years. Over the years, reduced water quality, degraded
habitat and dams on tributaries that restricted access to critical
habitat also took a toll on sturgeon numbers.

By the 1960s, fish and wildlife managers estimated as much as 80
percent of the lake sturgeon population had been wiped out, and the
fishery was closed in 1976.

Recent signs that sturgeon numbers may be on the rebound are
encouraging, but it’s not time to celebrate just yet, said Doug
Carlson, a DEC fisheries biologist with the rare fish
project.

“People are hedging about the words they choose. We’ve done no
studies that give you a clear idea,” Carlson said. “After a few
years of study, you might get the nature of the increase – if there
is an increase. If people tell us they are catching more now than
20 years ago, it may be that they know we are interested, and they
are reporting it more. We pay attention to what anglers say, but
try not to use them as (barometers of) trends.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of conducting
a comprehensive survey, a study wildlife officials hope will
provide a better glimpse into the scope and nature of the lake
sturgeon comeback, if indeed there is one.

“I don’t know if you can use the term ‘resurgence’ with lake
sturgeon,” said Betsy Trometer of the USFWS Lower Great Lakes fish
and wildlife office in Amherst, N.Y. “I believe there are areas
where their populations are increasing. And I believe one of those
is the lower Niagara River population. Since lake sturgeon are slow
to mature and do not spawn every year, any recovery is going to be
slow.”

In the meantime, if you happen to accidentally hook a hefty
sturgeon while fishing for walleye or some other species, feel free
to pose for a quick picture, but get it back in the water as soon
as possible. It will still be some time before they are removed
from threatened status, Carlson said.

DEC is trying to help that process along with some pilot projects,
including habitat restoration in the St. Lawrence River and
hatchery rearing and experimental stocking in the Oswegatchie, St.
Regis and Genesee rivers and Black, Oneida and Cayuga lakes.

Those efforts are showing some promise, but anglers shouldn’t
expect to see a return to the glory days of 150 years ago, Carlson
said.

“They may get really excited for their grandchildren. It’s such a
slow recovery time,” he said. “They are really slow to mature. It’s
a resource that we think about managing and harvesting. It’s an
exciting story that will be unraveled for us a few years from
now.

“The main thing is how profoundly abundant they were 130 years
ago,” Carlson said. “We’re really glad they are still there. We
don’t expect them to get back to that level.”

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