It’s been a fantastic summer for one lake sturgeon hatchery in Michigan.
Many lake sturgeon populations in the Great Lakes were wiped out decades ago. Demand for their eggs for caviar led to overfishing. Plus, dams built to power industry blocked sturgeon spawning grounds upstream.
Last spring, we told you about new efforts to restore a sub-species of sturgeon in the Kalamazoo River. This is the time of year when these little hatchery-raised fish are supposed to get released.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go very well for the new hatchery in the Kalamazoo River. Of the couple thousand eggs they had, only 52 survived. They were released into the river earlier this summer without much fanfare.
But I found another hatchery for lake sturgeon in Michigan that had an awesome year. This one is way up near Onaway, at the tip of the Lower Peninsula. They had a big release party last week.
A bunch of kids in hats and rain gear lined up around this big blue tub inside the hatchery. They take turns plunging small green fishing nets into the tub… pulling up dozens of baby lake sturgeon in a single try. The nets full of wriggling fish are loaded into a special truck that will take them safely to their new home, in the Black River.
David Borgeson is with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ fishery division based in Gaylord.
"At this point we’re very confident we’ll stock them and we’ll have good survival," says Borgeson.
The DNR is part of a team of people and organizations that's been rearing lake sturgeon here for more than a decade. With all that practice and community support, they’re getting pretty good at raising the prehistoric fish.
"We’ve had pretty good survival this year. They seem to be healthy, happy; we keep continuing to get better at rearing them," Borgeson said.
I think Borgeson’s being a little modest here. DNR records show the hatchery released more than 8,000 lake sturgeon this summer. That’s the most that have been released into the water system in Cheboygan County that includes Black Lake in a single year.
Lake sturgeon are Michigan’s oldest and biggest fish species. They can live to be 100 years old. The biggest can grow eight feet long and weigh up to 800 pounds.
Brenda Archambo grew up here near Onaway – known to many as the sturgeon capital of Michigan.
"I was 6 years old when I first saw a sturgeon. I never forgot it," she says.
Archambo says she was ice fishing with her grandpa when they heard a big commotion.
"And we opened up the door. We saw people kind of trudging through the snow to this shanty. There was this big huge fish on the ice like I’d never seen before. Of course I was short, and I remember looking into the eye of the sturgeon. And their pupils were diamond shaped like pictures of dinosaurs that I had seen and I never forgot that."
Now, Archambo is president of the Black Lake Chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow. It’s a non-profit group that helps raise and release these sturgeon.
"They’re so entrenched in our local culture that we’re like 'we don’t want to see this fish become extinct on our watch.'"
A short drive later and Archambo has a huge smile on her face watching as, net by net, thousands of these small sturgeon are loaded out of the truck and freed into their new home.
These fish will have to be able survive about two decades before they’re mature enough to come back to the Black River to spawn the next generation.