The Great Lake Sturgeon


The first book of its kind to explore this magnificent creature, this collected volume captures many aspects of the remarkable Great Lakes sturgeon, from the mythical to the critically real. Lake sturgeon are sacred to some, impressive to many, and endangered in the Great Lakes. A fish whose ancestry reaches back millions of years and that can live over a century and grow to six feet or more, the Great Lakes lake sturgeon was once considered useless, then overfished nearly to extinction. Though the fish is slowly...

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The first book of its kind to explore this magnificent creature, this collected volume captures many aspects of the remarkable Great Lakes sturgeon, from the mythical to the critically real. Lake sturgeon are sacred to some, impressive to many, and endangered in the Great Lakes. A fish whose ancestry reaches back millions of years and that can live over a century and grow to six feet or more, the Great Lakes lake sturgeon was once considered useless, then overfished nearly to extinction. Though the fish is slowly making a comeback thanks to the awareness-raising efforts of Native Americans, biologists, and sturgeon supporters, it remains to be seen if conservation and stewardship will continue to the degree this remarkable animal deserves. Blending history, biology, folklore, environmental science, and policy, this accessible book seeks to reach a broad audience and tell the story of the Great Lakes lake sturgeon in a manner as diverse as its subject.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781611860788
  • Publisher: Michigan State University Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/2013
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 950,052
  • Product dimensions: 5.86 (w) x 8.92 (h) x 0.59 (d)

Meet the Author

Dave Dempsey was the 2009 Michigan Author of the Year and has served as an environmental and policy advisor for many years. He lives in Rosemount, Minnesota. Nancy Auer teaches in the Department of Biological Sciences at Michigan Technological University and is a renowned expert and field researcher on lake sturgeon.

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Read an Excerpt


By Nancy Auer, Dave Dempsey

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2013 Michigan State University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61186-078-8




Sturgeon: The Great Lakes Buffalo

The book of natural resource exploitation in the United States and Canada since European settlement contains multiple illustrations of a ravenous human hunger for fish and wildlife species that extinguished, or nearly so, that which it desired. Even the most casual student of conservation has heard the legend of the passenger pigeon. It goes like this: in the first half of the 1800s, unimaginable numbers of birds darken the sky as they pass overhead. After 50 years of unchecked market hunting followed by futile conservation work, the last passenger pigeon dies in a Cincinnati zoo in 1916.

The passenger pigeon has plenty of company in the annals of catastrophic fish and wildlife consumption in North America. The most prominent example in the American imagination is the American bison, popularly known as the buffalo. Millions of bison ranged over millions of acres of the continent in the early 1800s. Desired primarily for their hides and meat, bison fell at the hands of market hunters by the millions for several consecutive decades. By the 1880s, they were rarely sighted anywhere in their native habitat. Managed enclosures and zoos were the bison's remaining living space. The species' monuments were stacks of skulls and piles of bones.

Said Theodore Roosevelt in a work published before his presidency: "A merciless and terrible process of natural selection, in which the agents were rifle-bearing hunters, has left as the last survivors in a hopeless struggle for existence only the wariest of the bison and those gifted with the sharpest senses" (Roosevelt 1893, 28).

The bison is a magnificent creature, capable of stunning speed, gifted with a noble head. Its association with the European settling of the American West lent it romance and won it a reprieve. Today the survival and recovery of the bison, even the sale of bison burgers in grocery stores and restaurants, comforts the public with its narrative of near-extinction and successful last-gasp conservation. Humans, the tale suggests, may not only rescue, but also even restore a part of nature's plenty.

Yet even in their fondness for the symbol of bison, Americans know little about them. Of 2,000 Americans who completed a Wildlife Conservation Society questionnaire in 2008, fewer than 10 percent knew how many bison remain in the United States, but 74 percent "believed that bison are extremely important living symbols of the American West." The Society called the public "woefully out of touch with the species' prospects for long-term survival" (Wildlife Conservation Society 2008).

A hundred years ago, the bison was safely, if not abundantly preserved. But the ultimate fate of sturgeon in the Great Lakes was unknown. It lacked, as yet, a meaningful human constituency for protection. Victim of contempt and plunder in turn, the lake sturgeon was frighteningly vulnerable to extinction. Many regarded it as ugly. It was far from being an example of what is now known as charismatic megafauna—a classification embracing polar bears, grizzly bears, cougars, wolves, and great apes (Buckley 2009).

But as we have learned, the lake sturgeon is every bit as appealing as these stars of the natural world in its own way, and just as much a barometer of health for the ecosystem it inhabits. It may be useful to trace the arc of human appreciation that begins in the late nineteenth century in the Great Lakes. Before that, the sturgeon of the Great Lakes was often considered a nuisance. Thought to consume spawn of valuable species, the sturgeon got in the way of catching whitefish and had few known commercial uses.

Looking back decades later, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources argued with only slight hyperbole that "no single animal was ever subjected to such deliberate wanton destruction as the lake sturgeon. By the time it finally became recognized as a valuable fish, it had largely been destroyed as a troublesome nuisance" (Michigan Department of Natural Resources 1973, 51). Sturgeon incidentally caught in nets were destroyed. Sometimes they were stacked in rows, dried, and burned. Some were used as fuel for boat boilers. Others were served up as pig feed or used to fertilize soil.

But the sturgeon, it turned out, could serve humans tangibly. A Canadian fisheries commissioner lamented the only gradually growing esteem of his countrymen for the lake sturgeon: "The Sturgeon is hardly appreciated at its true value in Ontario, the greatest proportion of the fish caught in Canadian waters being shipped to the States for sale. It is a fish nevertheless, of high economic importance, its flesh being of excellent nutritive quality and good though somewhat meaty flavor. The sounds or air-bladders furnish the best quality isinglass, and the roe the expensive delicacy 'caviare,' but these accessory products are not properly taken advantage of in the Province" (Wright 1892, 441).

An entry from the journal of John W. Kerr, a Canadian fishery official housed in Toronto, shows excitement about sturgeon harvest was growing.

February 15, 1882: Sturgeon fishing at Niagara (with hooks and lines) is the biggest thing in fishing that has happened yet. Great success. One sturgeon, dressed weight 65 lbs. Dressing: first the head is taken off, tail and fins cut off, guts removed, then fish is skinned. Two original fishermen had caught and sold more than $300 worth of sturgeon. "Buffalo Boys" taught Niagara fishermen how to catch sturgeon. Niagara is a money-making place.

Under this pressure, remarkable abundance swiftly passed from the scene. The smoking of sturgeon brought the species into commercial demand. The development of sturgeon caviar, the use of sturgeon hides for leather, increased use of sturgeon oil, and the production of carriage glass using gelatin derived from the swim bladders of sturgeon increased appreciation for the fish. By 1888, a state agency observed, "The once despised sturgeon has become one of the most valuable, commercially, of the many fish that are caught in the great lakes and deep rivers of this state. ... Nearly every part of it is utilized in some way" (Michigan State Board of Fish Commissioners 1888).

But the newly discovered value of the sturgeon only increased its slaughter. From an 1880 catch of 4.3 million pounds, sturgeon harvests fell in the next 20 years to 140,000 pounds (Michigan State Board of Fish Commissioners 1888).

By the early part of the twentieth century, some lake populations of the sturgeon had collapsed. For example, officials closed the Lake Michigan sturgeon fishery in 1929 when the catch fell to 2,000 pounds, down from 3.8 million pounds 50 years earlier (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2009).

Reckless, unsustainable fishing was only the direct cause of sturgeon's demise. The destruction of spawning habitat for navigation and the construction of hundreds of dams that prevented spawning runs also contributed significantly.

In the days long before the sturgeon came to be valued as a part of Americana, it even played a small role in the American pastime. "In the lake regions and other sections of the country where sturgeon were plentiful, baseballs were commonly made of the eyes of that fish. The eye of a large sturgeon contains a ball nearly as large as a walnut. It is composed of a flexible substance and will rebound if thrown against a hard base. These eyeballs were bound with yarn and afterward covered with leather or cloth. They made a lively ball, but were more like the dead ball of the present than any ball in use at that time" (Morris 2006, 271).

The sum of all destructive forces affecting the sturgeon seemed likely to consign it to memory. "With the drastic decrease in lake sturgeon abundance, most fisheries managers and ecologists believed in the early to mid 1800s that lake sturgeon would eventually disappear as a result of compounding negative pressures. However, lake sturgeon in the Great Lakes proved to be more resilient than previously assumed" (Léonard, Taylor, and Goddard 2004, 232). Indeed.

The survival of the lake sturgeon was synchronous with a remarkable rebound of the Great Lakes. Beginning in the late 1960s, public investments in sewage treatment, enforcement of strict environmental laws affecting business, and dawning environmental awareness among millions of Canadians and Americans reflected in stewardship actions contributed to a remarkable, visible recovery of the Great Lakes.

As algal blooms abated in the lower Great Lakes, introduced salmon replaced unwanted alewives as a dominant species, and bald eagles began reproducing in earnest, the notion of a robust natural world took popular root. "It's amazing how resilient natural processes are once we allow them to work," said my friend, Elizabeth Harris, then executive director of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, in the 1990s. The last decade of the twentieth century offered hope for all life in the Great Lakes after a near ecological collapse at the midpoint of the same century.

The subject of careful census and study since the 1960s also, the lake sturgeon assumed significance before the new millennium began as a bellwether or indicator species for the Great Lakes. Their reintroduction in historic spawning habitats made the sturgeon, as one reporter put it, "a mascot" for a river's recovery (Moule 2008). Evading extinction by clinging successfully to their last viable spawning grounds, the sturgeon, at an estimated 1 percent of its historic numbers, was tougher than the careless despoilers of 100 years before might have thought. In their persistence they appealed to the human heart; and in the light of a new historical narrative they became beautiful.

Sensing the mood, elected officials quickly congratulated their partners and themselves for helping rescue the species. "We are indeed so proud to be part of this international success story of recovery of lake sturgeon in our shared Great Lakes waters," said Canadian member of Parliament Jeff Watson. "It is so heartening to see the amazing success of this sturgeon habitat restoration for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge," noted Congressman John D. Dingell. "No one thought this degree of success was possible only 30 years ago" (Friends of the Detroit River 2009).

This is well known. But can a species whose tentative comeback depends not only on expert fisheries biologists but also on the fluctuation in government spending to support their work sustain that recovery? Can the sturgeon of the Great Lakes depend on its human constituency for continuing affection and conservation? The signals are mixed.

The first aquarium in the United States devoted to freshwater fish, the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth, Minnesota, opened in 2000 and struggled for years to keep its doors open. Its heavy debt load was one reason, but it also had difficulty attracting a tourist following. Fish of the Great Lakes disappointed some visitors. In 2002, the aquarium's managers "discussed adding saltwater exhibits for more pizzazz, such as bringing in a shark to compare it with a sturgeon" (Associated Press 2002). When Toronto, Ontario, considered its own aquarium in 2005, skeptics said it was a dubious proposal because it would lack "charismatic attractions" like whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals. By 2009, the Duluth facility had an Amazon exhibit and a seahorse display. The Toronto aquarium has not been built.

As much as most anglers, scientists, and nature lovers value the restoration of lake sturgeon for their intrinsic value, poaching is no more eradicated than the species itself. In spring 2009, in plain sight of observers on the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, a lawbreaker reeled in a five-foot sturgeon and drove away with it in spite of strict regulations (Grand Rapids Press 2009). "Given its size, it would have to be a fairly old fish," Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officer Dave Rodgers said. "So losing even one can have an impact on the sturgeon population." The 36- to 40-pound fish was one of only 35 to 40 thought to have spawned in the river in the spring of 2009.

Some of those noting the recovery appear ambivalent. "There are tons of sturgeon in western Lake Erie, especially around the mouth of the Detroit River,' said one commercial fisherman in 2005, echoing the complaints of his predecessors 150 years earlier. "They're always tearing the hell out of our nets. I betcha there's a lot more sturgeon there than they can imagine" (Currie 2005).

A counterweight: the enthusiasm of some sturgeon protectors could be contagious, especially with children. The manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, John Hartig, called the sturgeon "a show-stopper" for kids. "When you take kids and show them a fish that is five or six feet long, they are blown away. It's a living dinosaur. It's been around that long. They ask, 'How has that thing survived when so many other things have gone extinct?'" (Henry 2009).

The lake sturgeon was also the reasonably charismatic star of a popular IMAX documentary, Mysteries of the Great Lakes, which audiences across the region enjoyed in 2008 and 2009. With the haunting steel guitar of Gordon Lightfoot's Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in the background and soaring vistas of vast Great Lakes waters as a visual prelude, the movie lovingly portrayed the sturgeon run in a Great Lakes tributary and its human admirers. Elementary school teachers working off the documentary were given materials to help them tell the students "about the water and history of the Great Lakes and some of the aspects that make it an important and unique resource for us all. The common theme throughout all parts of this resource is our Great Lakes friend, Sally Sturgeon. Sally is a lake sturgeon. Sally is over 120 years old. Given everything Sally has been through it is amazing that she has survived so long."

It is; and it is equally amazing that the sturgeon is able to use some of humanity's past mistakes in the Great Lakes as bootstraps for its recovery. A 2004 Michigan Department of Natural Resources report explained a reproducing population of sturgeon in Lake St. Clair's North Channel was assisted by an artificial spawning reef: "The coal cinders at the North Channel site are believed to have been deposited during the late 1800s when coal-burning vessels moored to load salt from a nearby factory and emptied their cinders into the river. The cinder substrate is now zebra mussel encrusted, and the three-dimensional structure of the cinders combined with the zebra mussel layer provide a complex system of interstitial spaces that appears to provide excellent protection for deposited eggs and fry" (Tomas and Haas 2004, 9).

The combination of an unconsciously crafty and opportunistic natural world and human fancy may well perpetuate the sturgeon's good fortune. But while the behavior of nature is largely unalterable, the future of human beings is unknowable. Will our fancy again turn against the fish?

"The outlook for lake sturgeon recovery rangewide is guardedly optimistic," a recent scientific paper observed, "thanks in part to renewed interest in the species, novel approaches to management, new opportunities to eliminate long-standing data gaps, and continued progress in habitat restoration. Recent emphasis on maintaining biodiversity has prompted several new management initiatives to 'bring back the natives ...' Our guarded optimism, however, is not intended as an 'all clear' regarding threats facing the species" (Peterson, Vecsei, and Jennings 2007, 72–73).

The buffalo/bison may be safe, but the lake sturgeon is not yet. Its populations are tenuous, its reproductive biology a liability, and the affinity of the top beast in the Great Lakes food chain always subject to change. What seems clear is that given half a chance, the lake sturgeon will add to its ancient Great Lakes history.



Form and Function in Lake Sturgeon

The lake sturgeon, Acipenser fulvescens, was first described in 1818 by a botanist from Turkey named Constantine S. Rafinesque. He encountered lake sturgeon during a survey of the flora and fauna of the Ohio River (Rafinesque 1820). The lake sturgeon is the only endemic sturgeon of the genus Acipenser found throughout the three closely related, freshwater drainage basins in North America, those of the Mississippi River, Great Lakes, and Hudson Bay (Ferguson and Duckworth 1997). Eight other species or subspecies of sturgeons in two genera are recognized in North America (table 1).

The sturgeons are one of the oldest fishes on earth, bridging evolutionary time between the closely related and similar-looking sharks (fishes with full cartilaginous skeletons) and the early true bony fishes first represented by the gars and bowfins (figure 1). Sturgeons possess some bone in the form of plates, called scutes, on their body surface and head that have persisted in the geologic record (plate 1). Fossils of sturgeon scutes date to between 100 to 200 million years of age, placing these fish on earth during the age of dinosaurs, the late Cretaceous (Hilton and Grande 2006).

Why Have Sturgeon Survived for So Long?

The 27 species of sturgeons known to live in the Northern Hemisphere have survived due to a combination of several life history strategies. Most sturgeons fill an ecological niche by retaining, from their shark ancestors, several features that have persisted over time, withstood the power of natural selection and proven beneficial to survival (Auer 2004). The sturgeons have combined several life history strategies, which include the following:

• Large body size and shape, large muscle segments and oil-rich connective tissue that assist buoyancy and energy-efficient swimming

• Early life development of fast growth and sharp boney scutes that help deter predators

• Maturation of reproductive organs later in life and intermittent spawning

• Feeding on benthic organisms and organic material, which allow a more passive feeding strategy, requiring less physical energy than a typical predator

• Occupying the light-limited, bottom waters of lakes and large rivers that protect them from predators and unusual fluctuations in water temperature

• Living to a great age, which allows them, over short or long time periods, to persist through flood, drought, warming, or cooling events.

Fishing pressure, barriers, and dams blocking spawning migration routes and persistent chemical contamination are human impacts that have and continue to reduce the future success of this unusual organism in its remaining habitats. Let's take a closer look at some of these life strategies.

Excerpted from THE GREAT LAKE STURGEON by Nancy Auer. Copyright © 2013 by Michigan State University. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


PREFACES....................     vii     

Sturgeon: The Great Lakes Buffalo | Dave Dempsey....................     1     

Form and Function in Lake Sturgeon | Nancy Auer....................     9     

N'me | Jimmie Mitchell....................     21     

The Lake Sturgeon as Survivor and Integrative Indicator of Changes in
Stressed Aquatic Systems in the Laurentian Basin | Henry A. Regier, Robert
M. Hughes, and John E. Gannon....................     27     

Habitat, Foods, and Feeding | Edward A. Baker and Nancy Auer...............     59     

Recognizing the Genetic Population Structure of Lake Sturgeon Stocks | Amy
Welsh....................     79     

Restoration and Renewal: A Sturgeon Tale | Lauri Kay Elbing................     93     

The St. Lawrence River Lake Sturgeon: Management in Quebec, 1940S–2000S |
Pierre Dumont and Yves Mailhot....................     101     

Bringing Us Back to the River | Marty Holtgren....................     133     

Sturgeon for Tomorrow | Brenda Archambo....................     147     

The Relationship between Lake Sturgeon Life History and Potential
Sensitivity to Sea Lamprey Predation | Holly Muir and Trent M. Sutton......     153     

Future Management and Stewardship of Lake Sturgeon | Nancy Auer............     173     

ABOUT THE AUTHORS....................     187     

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