What’s six feet tall, weighs over 100 pounds and could live to be 100 years old? Hint: not a person.
Change “tall” to “long” and you would be talking about lake sturgeon, a remarkable fish species that is bouncing back from over a century of exploitation and decline. Our state’s la
rgest fish, the sturgeon is a natural wonder. Small numbers are found in the Mississippi, St. Croix, Red, and Rainy rivers, as well as Lake Superior, Lake of the Woods, and some lakes in the Boundary Waters.
It’s built differently than most freshwater fish, with an armor of bony plates and a skeleton made of cartilage. The lake sturgeon descends from a prehistoric fish, and resembles fossils from the Upper Cretaceous Period 100 million years ago.
Like the bison and the passenger pigeon, the sturgeon was undervalued until it was nearly gone. Native Americans valued sturgeon as part of their cultural heritage, but things changed when Europeans arrived. Commercial netters initially considered it a trash fish. Some stacked and burned them. When sturgeon roe developed as a commercial prize, overfishing cut deeply into sturgeon populations, too. The construction of dams, keeping adult sturgeon from upstream spawning grounds, didn’t help either. Pollution was almost the final nail in the coffin.
Now the sturgeon is coming back. Reduced to less than 1% of its historic abundance, the lake sturgeon is slowly recovering. Improved water quality, stocking, fish passage at dams and increased human appreciation of the sturgeon’s majesty are all contributing to its comeback. In Minnesota, restoration efforts by the state DNR and partners are focusing on the Red River, Lake of the Woods and Rainy River, St. Louis River estuary and western Lake Superior, and St. Croix River.
Coupled with the biologists’ work is public education to inspire appreciation of this unusual fish. The lake sturgeon was 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.”
Amazing, all right, and hopeful. With luck and continued effort, Minnesota will have plenty of lake sturgeon when Sally’s grand-descendants mature. And we’ll have another reminder that good stewardship can help undo the resource management mistakes of the past.