If you've ever seen a lake sturgeon, you know that there's something really mystifying and beautiful about this ancient fish. They’ve been around for more than 100 million years, but their numbers have dwindled in the past century and they’re now considered a threatened species. But state officials and sturgeon enthusiasts are committed to helping the species bolster its numbers.
To that end, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is putting out the call for volunteers to help shepherd sturgeon along the Black River in Cheboygan County as they make their annual sojourn back to their spawning grounds.
“We work in collaboration with the Michigan DNR, the law enforcement, the tribes, and some other covert operations just to secure the area to prevent would-be poachers,” said Brenda Archambo, president of Sturgeon for Tomorrow.
Sturgeons can weigh up to 300 pounds and grow to eight feet in length. They live longer than the average freshwater fish, with male lake sturgeon living to an average of 55 years and females living 80-150 years. Because of this longer life-cycle, they reproduce when they are older.
“Males are 12 to 20 years old before they will first reproduce and females are 17 to 30 years old. So it takes them a long, long time to reach reproductive age,” said Archambo.
So what does being a sturgeon chaperone entail? Dave Borgeson is the Fisheries Unit Supervisor at the Michigan DNR. He said it’s noticing any thing that could be poaching activity in the shallow waters and then reporting that activity to enforcement personnel.
“There was a legal [sturgeon fishing] season and we could only attribute maybe half of the mortality to that legal harvest season. And they have such great survival once they're, you know, a foot long. So we knew something else was getting them," Borgeson said. "And with a lot of incidental reports of poaching and that sort of thing, we knew that poaching in the river was a significant factor in the reduction of the population."
Archambo says that targeted rehabilitation efforts over the past 15 to 18 years have made a real difference and increased Michigan’s lake sturgeon population. And as sturgeon become more common to come across in the Great Lakes, Archambo said Michiganders need to familiarize themselves with the species.
“Going forward, we're going to have more and more interactions with this majestic animal. And because of their vulnerabilities, we need to raise the bar and say, ‘Look, we have a lot of effort and decades into this recovery effort and we need the citizens of the state of Michigan to step up and also be protectors,’” Archambo said. “And if they see something wrong, that they need to report it.”
If you want to learn more about how to become a member of the sturgeon guard or be part of other sturgeon conservation efforts, you can visit the Sturgeon for Tomorrow website.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan.