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Environmental groups work to increase lake sturgeon population in upstate waters

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Midwest Region

The waters of Oneida Lake have long been a destination for fishermen in upstate New York. Fishermen come to try their hand at catching walleye, bass, and perch. But a much larger fish could someday be the ultimate prize in this body of water, and others throughout upstate New York.

It’s a beautiful late-summer morning in Sylvan Beach, NY. A team of researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Tunison Research Lab is taking full advantage of the weather. Packed into a small aluminum boat loaded with gear and several buckets, the group heads out on Fish Creek to check gill nets that were set 24 hours earlier.

Surveying the many species of fish that call the creek, and nearby Oneida Lake, home is part of the job, but there’s one fish that they’re seeking above all else. They’ve struck out on the first three nets of the day, but on the fourth...

"Oh yes, oh yes, oh yeah! We got a baby! You take priority. Woohoo! Now we can get excited!"

They’ve caught an 18-inch lake sturgeon around two years old. It’s the third naturally reproduced sturgeon caught in New York state since efforts began to save the fish that remains virtually unchanged since prehistoric times.

"It's amazing," says USGS research ecologist Dr. Dawn Dittman, who is one of the three members of the crew that caught the prized fish. "Their relatives are all fossils in the natural history museum."

The torpedo-shaped lake sturgeon is one of the largest freshwater fish to inhabit New York waters, with fully grown adults typically spanning up to five feet in length.

But there are hardly any left, and even fewer able to reproduce. Dr. Randy Jackson, a senior research associate at Cornell University’s Shackleton Point Field Station, says that it wasn't always that way.

"The major sturgeon populations in New York state historically were in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, and their associated tributaries, presumably quite abundant and actually supported commercial fisheries, particularly in Lake Erie," Jackson said.

In the late 1800s, a market developed for smoked sturgeon, as well as caviar, a delicacy made from their eggs.

"They suddenly became the most valuable commercial fish in the waters, and were overfished dramatically, with four million pounds or so per year taken out of the Great Lakes," Jackson said. "They mature late, so they're quite easy to overfish."

The good news for sturgeon is that help is on the way. Collaborative efforts between Cornell, the USGS and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation are beginning to show results. Sturgeon were stocked from 1994 to 2004, in a number of the state’s lakes and rivers. Some must be reproducing, because the fish caught recently—two on Fish Creek and one on the Oswegatchie River -- are too young to be stocked fish. Jackson says it’s a sign the program is working.

“It's a real breakthrough," Jackson said. "Of course, the objective of any restoration program and the state's ultimate objective with this program is to establish sustainable populations, so you don't want to have to maintain sturgeon by stocking year in and year out."

Sturgeon are a large part of Wisconsin’s more than $2 billion sportfishing industry, and are so highly valued that volunteers guard the spawning streams to protect from poachers. The fish's remarkable size and strong fight could make it a target for anglers in New York. Just ask John Kennedy. He’s casting off the Sylvan Beach pier.

"I had one on the line last year," Kennedy said. "I got close enough to see what it was after around a half hour, and then he was gone. Sliced my line and I was using 50 pound test."

The process of restoring the species is tedious, with the maturation process taking fifteen years at least. The ecosystem has survived for years without them, so why make all this effort?

"Lake sturgeon is considered by some to be a sentinel species for measuring the health of the waterways and the lakes," Dr. Dawn Dittman said. "If lake sturgeon are present, it is felt that things are going in a very positive direction."

While the project shows signs of progress, Don’t expect to see Oneida Lake caviar anytime soon. But someday, it could be a destination for fisherman looking for a fight.

Ray Biggs reported this story as part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's stories at their website, nyrp-uc.org.