News and views, and history and humor, about the lake I love.

"I can hear my granddad's stories of the storms out on Lake Erie, where vessels and cargos and fortunes, and sailors' lives were lost." ~ James Taylor, Millworker

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Lake Sturgeon: Sad tale of an endangered species

From the author's collection
Said the Sturgeon to the Eel
Just imagine how I feel*
If you want to point to a fish that has been a bellwether of what we have done to Lake Erie's fishery, look no further than the Lake Sturgeon. These monster bottom fish use to be plentiful in the lake, particular the islands area here in the west end. Now they are an endangered species. How they got that way is a sad story.

An indigenous species, the Lake Sturgeon is an evolutionarily ancient bottom feeder that dates back to the last ice age. They flourished for centuries in Lake Erie's shallow, warm waters.  The largest of Great Lakes fish, these magnificent fish can reach eight feet in length, attain weights exceeding 300 pounds, and live to be 100 years of age. The largest recorded Great Lakes sturgeon was 310 pounds and almost 8 feet long, caught in Batchawana Bay in Lake Superior in 1922.

Despite the presence of an exceedingly profitable Great Lakes commercial fishing industry during the 19th century, prior to the 1860s fishermen considered sturgeon a nuisance fish, becoming entangled in nets and ripping them to pieces. Even worse, they were like vacuum cleaners, sucking up the eggs of the "valuable species" -- like whitefish -- by the gallon. In the words of one Lake Erie fisherman, quoted in 1894, "A sturgeon is like a hog in a hen roost. They go around and suck up all the spawn there is...."

They were dealt with accordingly: wounded and thrown back to scare other sturgeon away from fishing grounds; killed and stacked on shore like cordwood; fed to pigs; used as fertilizer; or simply left to rot. Fishermen rationalized this waste as a way to make good money and ensure the longevity of commercial species.

Then in 1865 the brothers Siemon and John Schacht began a commercial fishing business in Sandusky, Ohio, harvesting Lake Sturgeon for caviar, smoked sturgeon, and oil (to be used as fuel in steamboat boilers and lamps). They had previously harvested sturgeon on the Delaware River. Seeing their success, other firms soon joined in, and suddenly sturgeon became a commercially viable species.

To give some sense of how plentiful these large fish were, in 1871 a 1872 a government biologist made a special report on the Great Lakes fishery in which he noted a catch off Sandusky of 14,000 sturgeon, taken with eighty-five pound nets, that weighed in at 700,000 pounds. This catch was larger than any other on the Great Lakes except Green Bay, Wisconsin.

What happened next was all too familiar. Over-harvesting in the latter half of the 19th century took a terrible toll on the sturgeon. By 1893-94 they had "declined disastrously" in the face of aggressive commercial harvesting, a situation that only worsened into the next century, so that by the 1920s their numbers had been decimated. But despite subsequent conservation efforts, their numbers never recovered in the lake, although there are robust populations on Lake St. Clair and the Niagara River.

One reason for their failure to recover in Lake Erie seems to be loss of habitat. Chuck Murray with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission explains:
Historically, there were open lake spawning populations, but that doesn't seem to be the case anymore. The most notable spawning populations are in the rivers, like the Niagara and the Huron-Erie corridor. We have the shoals and other areas where there's the wave action they like for spawning, but is the habitat enough for a viable population? I think that's doubtful, but it's one of the things the sturgeon work group may look into.
I could find no reliable estimate of current sturgeon numbers in Lake Erie. In 2009 the catching of a few sturgeon by perch fishermen near Erie created some excitement but no one is expecting a sudden resurgence of these large bottom feeders.

They will likely remain an endangered species into the foreseeable future.

*From Fishing the Great Lakes: An Environmental History, 1783-1933, by Margaret Beattie Bogue (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000). This book is recommended reading for anyone interested in the history of commercial fishing on the Great Lakes.

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