Sturgeon recovery on track in New York

What do you do on a day when you’re on a late winter beach vacation in Florida and it’s raining? The answer, of course, is to do what several hundred other vacationers did and pack the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Longboat Key just south of Anna Maria Island. The facility is where my wife and I, along with what seemed like every other tourist along Florida’s Gulf coast, spent an interesting morning and afternoon observing a variety of sea creatures I admittedly knew nothing about.

The exhibits of manatees, sharks, rays and sundry sea creatures were interesting, but it was the first tank we saw that I still vividly remember. “They’re Caspian Sea sturgeon,” the volunteer docent informed us. “These are just juveniles but in about six more years when they’re mature we’ll kill the males, sell the meat and take the eggs of the females and sell it as caviar."

The comment took me totally by surprise. “I thought this was a marine sanctuary and research center, aren’t sturgeon endangered” I asked? “They are,” he said. He went on to explain the sturgeon are being raised by the Center much the way trout are raised by state agencies and that the institution was raising about 75,000 sturgeon in a hatchery not far from the aquarium. “We do it to raise money and it’s a totally sustainable enterprise for us,” he explained. Okay, it was a plausible explanation and one I could readily understand, and it made me think of the sturgeon we have here in New York.

New York waters are home to several species of sturgeon including, Atlantic and lake sturgeon, and many lakes and rivers around the state once had viable populations of these fish. Poor water conditions and overfishing reduced sturgeon numbers to where lake sturgeon are considered a threatened species here in New York.

Currently, efforts to restore them to harvestable and sustainable levels are taking place throughout the state. Lake sturgeon have been stocked in Oneida Lake, Cayuga Lake, and Black Lake, and in rivers such as the Grasse, Oswegatchie, and Genesse. The Niagara River has a healthy and growing population of these prehistoric creatures and New York fisheries managers, in collaboration with federal biologists, are currently attempting to restore lake sturgeon to Lake Ontario waters as well as in the St. Lawrence River. Last fall, the Genesee River, a tributary of Lake Ontario, was stocked with 1,000 lake sturgeon, and earlier Sandy Pond also received an allotment.

In the past, sturgeon were fished commercially and the flesh was a staple on the dinner plates of many New Yorkers. Smoked sturgeon was a gourmet’s delight and the tasty white meat was highly prized. However, while the process of restoring the species is tedious, there is another reason why biologists are attempting to re-establish the population of sturgeon to our waters. Lake sturgeon are considered to be a sentinel species for measuring the health of our rivers and lakes, and it’s felt if lake sturgeon are present it means water quality is high and things are looking good.

Today’s fisheries managers and biologists are optimistic and feel the sturgeon population will grow to where sportfishing will once again be allowed. 

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