The Future of Fish

Sturgeon For Tomorrow has its annual banquet, then lets fingerlings enter lake system

Cheboygan Daily Tribune
13-week-old sturgeon finglerling.

CHEBOYGAN - The successful partnership between a state agency and a civilian volunteer force to renew the Northern Michigan sturgeon population was celebrated on Saturday.

The 250 people who attended the Sturgeon For Tomorrow banquet at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Cheboygan heard about research designed to make sure that the large, prehistoric-looking fish found in the inland lakes and their tributaries are around for future generations.

Many turned out to watch Sunday as 3,600 13-week-old sturgeon finglerlings were released into Mullett and Burt lakes. Another 4,100 are expected to be set free in the Black River today, all raised in a streamside research facility in Cheboygan County.

The two researchers who are overseeing the research facility spoke at Saturday's banquet, explaining how the facility along the Black River has revealed the habits and the growing population of sturgeon in Northern Michigan.

Patrick Forsythe, a Michigan State University graduate student who is taking part in the sturgeon research at the streamside facility, gave a synopsis of capture and tagging of the huge fish.

Michigan State University researchers, members of Sturgeon For Tomorrow and other interested parties gathered at the Sturgeon River in Indian River on Sunday to watch the release of 1,800 fingerlings. The fish had been raised in a streamside fishery on the upper Black River.

He said a total of 234 sturgeon were captured in 2006, broken down to 168 males and 66 females. Of the males, 105 had previously been tagged by the researchers, and of the 66 females, 21 had previously been netted and tagged.

There was good news in that the team recorded 5,587 larval sturgeon were recorded, indicating that adult sturgeon are reproducing naturally without artificial help from humans.

He added that a number of fish that weighed more than 120 pounds were recorded during the capture and tagging this year.

James Crossman, another MSU graduate student involved in the research, said that there are two locations in Michigan where sturgeon are raised to be released. He said 2,800 finglerlings were raised at a Michigan Department of Natural Resources fishery in Kalamazoo, while 5,500 were raised at the streamside facility on the upper Black River. Although they are extracted from the same source, the Kalamazoo fish have different coloration and are not raised in their natural waters, as they are in the Black River facility.

He also said that this year researchers have allowed the fish to mature more than in 2005. The fish were released at ages of 8 weeks and 13 weeks in 2005, and will have reached an age of 17 weeks to 18 weeks when they are released into the Black and Sturgeon rivers.

"We have found that larger fish do better after their release," Crossman said.

He also covered research on predators, showing that crawfish were the biggest threat to the infant sturgeon.

Kelly Smith, the chief of DNR fisheries in Lansing, said he thinks the relationship between the DNR and Sturgeon For Tomorrow is vital to bolstering the dwindling sturgeon population in Michigan.

"This partnership between a private group and the DNR in protecting and rehabilitate the sturgeon population is important to the state," Smith said at the banquet Saturday. "It fits in with the rehabilitation efforts statewide."

He said the partnership, including the sturgeon guardians who patrol the waters during the spring spawning season to prevent poaching, is unique to Michigan.

"There is an effort to study and rehabilitate the population around the state, and it is done in ways we don't see in other states," he said.

He added that the results of the research might not be immediately visible.

"These fish are long-lived," Smith noted. "It will take a long time, but eventually it will pay off with big dividends for the state in the long run."

Brenda Archambo, president of Sturgeon For Tomorrow, said Sunday that repopulation of the lakes with sturgeon could benefit the state on many levels. She said there could be sturgeon-viewing tours as part of an ecotourism plan, or, if certain levels are reached, it could become a fishing attraction as it is in Wisconsin.

"It took Lake Winnebago 50 years to reach this point after efforts began," Archambo said, noting that some 5,000 shanties are on frozen Lake Winnebago during the highly regulated sturgeon season. "Maybe 50 years from now we will be at that point, too."