Pittsburgh (AP) — On a June morning in 2009, fishing for yellow perch aboard the Edward John head boat off northwestern Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle, Dick Brozell, of McKean County, set the hook on a throwback to a prehistoric era. After a ferocious, 20-minute fight, he landed what looked like a monster.
“He thought he was stuck on the bottom,” said John Nekoloff, the Edward John’s owner and captain. “It’s unusual to hear of anyone catching a lake sturgeon in the lake. He took the hook out, had a picture taken and immediately dropped it back into the water.”
Once the biggest predator in the Great Lakes, the lake sturgeon was driven to the brink of extinction. An effort is underway to make the endangered fish a more familiar sight in Lake Erie. The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission is participating in a multistate and federal effort to re-establish sturgeon-spawning habitat.
Since 2003, the federal government has spent $10 million to create six sturgeon-spawning sites in the Detroit and St. Clair rivers, and two more are planned. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken the lead with help from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Toledo Zoo and nonprofit conservation organization Lake Erie Waterkeeper.
In 2014, the Fish & Boat Commission assisted by attempting to trap live-release samples of lake sturgeon near the mouths of Walnut Creek and Sixteenmile Creek, in Erie County. Plans were to tag the fish and track migration patterns between Lake Erie’s two sturgeon population centers on the western and eastern sides of the lake.
“We didn’t find any,” said Fish and Boat’s Mark Haffley. “We picked streams where there have been reports that lake sturgeons were caught, and historical reports. It’s not a high population. They’re highly migratory.”
Occasional sightings in Pennsylvania waters and incidental angler catches – most recently off the marina at North East – are puzzling, Haffley said.
“In 1997, several dead sturgeon washed up near Twentymile Creek,” he said. “The biggest was almost 7 foot.”
Lake sturgeon have been on the Earth no fewer than 150 million years, coexisting with dinosaurs for at least 85 million years. Native to northern latitudes, including the Allegheny and Ohio rivers, they can reach 8 feet in length and are believed to live up to 150 years.
Twenty-seven species of sturgeon exist worldwide. Three live in Pennsylvania: the threatened Atlantic sturgeon and the endangered shortnose and lake sturgeon, one of only three species that spends its entire life in fresh water. The lake sturgeon is cousin to the European, or beluga, sturgeon, producer of the finest caviar.
With a body armored in rows of thick plates instead of scales, all sturgeon carry a certain primitive mystique. Lake sturgeon have an eye-catching snout, sensitive “whiskers” under the chin and a retractable mouth that can hang like a nose from the underside of its head.
“Despite its size, it is classified as a filter feeder,'' said Tom Hayes, an aquarist with the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, which exhibits a 3-foot lake sturgeon. “When you watch them eat, they throw out the proboscis, or nose, which looks like a mouth turned inside out, and suck the food in. They’re always feeding off the bottom.”
Chris Vandergoot, supervisor of the Sandusky Fisheries Research Station operated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said Lake Erie was once “the epicenter of lake sturgeon.” The Great Lakes region’s biggest sturgeon stronghold – a population estimated at 60,000 – lives in Wisconsin’s Lake Winnebago and two tributaries.
Lake sturgeon nearly went extinct because of dam construction and overfishing by commercial and sport anglers. They have become a symbol of improving water quality and wildlife recovery efforts in the Great Lakes region.
Plans are underway for Toledo, Ohio, to follow Detroit as an industrialized city where lake sturgeon can successfully spawn again in waters with murky reputations. So far, the project has successfully re-established sturgeon in the Detroit River, the 24-mile waterway flowing from Lake St. Clair into Lake Erie.
Some 330,000 to 1.1 million lake sturgeon are believed to have inhabited Lake Erie in the 1800s. Lake Erie sturgeon eggs were sold to Europe, where they were relabeled and sold back to the United States as pricey “Russian caviar,” according to Wisconsin Sea Grant. One caviar processing plant was located near today’s ranger station at Presque Isle State Park.
But the commercial fishing industry saw the fish as less of a commodity than a nuisance – the enormous strength and thrashing weight of lake sturgeons tore apart fishing nets. Efforts to eradicate them began in the 1800s.
Sturgeons were used as fuel for Great Lakes steamships, or just discarded. To this day, anglers refer to one part of Presque Isle Bay as the “stink pit,” where sturgeon were once dumped to rot.
The construction of dams on most Great Lakes tributaries, which blocked fish from spawning, contributed to the sturgeon’s demise.
In most cases, the effort to re-establish lake sturgeon has tugboats, barges and cranes dumping rocks and boulders into place to create spawning habitat. Scientists believe that will give sturgeon eggs shelter and slow the currents just enough for males and females to spawn.
When they’re not spawning, lake sturgeon want to be in swift-moving currents, said Bruce Manny, a retired U.S. Geological Survey biologist associated with that agency's Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Voracious bottom feeders, the sturgeon is one of a few aquatic predators that targets invasive zebra mussels and round gobies. Since hitchhiking to the Great Lakes in the bilges of ocean-going ships, they have expanded virtually unchecked and are considered a major threat to waterways including Lake Erie.