Federal protections being considered for Michigan’s lake sturgeon

The lake sturgeon is a legendary fish species that has the ability to live for over a hundred years and reach astonishing sizes. However, their numbers today are only a fraction of what they used to be in the past.

In June, federal wildlife regulators are facing a deadline to determine whether lake sturgeon should receive protection under the Endangered Species Act. This decision is being closely observed by scientists, regulators, and sports fishers, as it could have significant implications not only for Michigan but also for the entire range of the fish.

Sports fishers are collectively concerned about the potential impact of changes in federal protections on their fishing activities. They are worried about how these changes could affect not only the angling and spearing seasons but also the overall efforts in the fishery.

In 2018, the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation organization, urged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to evaluate the need for federal safeguards for lake sturgeon. They emphasized that varying degrees of protection might be necessary for the various regional populations of this freshwater fish.

Will Harlan, senior scientist with the center’s endangered species program, emphasized that the shared goal of sturgeon anglers and individuals across Michigan and the region is to ensure the well-being of rivers, promote clean water, and support thriving fish populations.

“We are confident that the federal listing of this species will pave the way for its recovery to sustainable levels, ensuring abundant and sustainable fisheries for future generations.”

The FWS was requested by the center to define and list distinct population segments of lake sturgeon in the United States as threatened or endangered.

The group argues that populations in Lake Superior, Minnesota, and the Missouri River, Ohio River, Arkansas-White River, and lower Mississippi River may warrant full endangered status.

The group argues that the lake sturgeon in Lake Michigan and the upper Mississippi River basin should be considered for threatened status. According to their petition, the lake sturgeon in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River appear to be part of a larger population that may not require federal protections.

The organization has also asked the FWS to identify critical habitats for all listed lake sturgeon populations.

Harlan expressed his deep concern for the spawning habitat of the fish and emphasized the need for sufficient spawning areas in rivers and lakes to support the recovery of their population.

Federal wildlife officials have confirmed that the historically low populations of lake sturgeon are a result of overfishing, habitat loss, and pollution.

According to Justin Chiotti, a fish biologist with the FWS, lake sturgeon populations were severely affected by overfishing during the 1800s and 1900s. Furthermore, ongoing human activities have also blocked the sturgeons’ access to their natural breeding grounds.

Lake sturgeon, a species of fish, migrate upstream annually to spawn. They prefer fast-flowing water with larger rocks, which are often found in areas where dams have been built. As a result, many river systems that historically supported lake sturgeon populations now have restricted access to their preferred spawning areas, as explained by Chiotti.

In recent decades, both Michigan state fisheries scientists and private conservation groups have been actively involved in efforts to restore lake sturgeon populations. One of the key initiatives has been the implementation of hatchery rearing programs, which focus on raising and releasing fingerlings into various streams across Michigan. By stocking these streams with young sturgeon, they aim to boost the overall population of this iconic fish species.

The limited harvest of lake sturgeon on Black Lake is usually a yearly occurrence. However, due to hazardous ice conditions, state officials have decided to cancel the season this year.

The Cheboygan County-based chapter of nonprofit Sturgeon for Tomorrow is eagerly awaiting the FWS decision on federal protections. This dedicated group is committed to preserving the Black Lake and Black River population of the ancient fish in northern Michigan.

Jay Woiderski, the president of the group, is optimistic about the future of fish populations in the area. He believes that the returns from the fish that have been planted in the past 20 years are just starting to show. In the next 10 to 15 years, he expects the numbers to explode, indicating a significant increase in fish populations.

In Michigan, there is a strong argument against the need for federal protections, according to Woiderski. He believes that the efforts to rehabilitate fish populations are already underway across the entire system. As a result, he suggests that local management would be preferable to federal government intervention.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) echoed the sentiments of a fishery official, expressing a similar viewpoint.

Edward Baker, the manager of the DNR Marquette Fisheries Research Station, disagrees with the notion that lake sturgeon should be listed as threatened or endangered solely based on their current population decline. While acknowledging that the abundance of lake sturgeon is significantly lower than it was before European settlement, Baker believes that this alone does not necessitate their classification as threatened or endangered.

According to him, sturgeon are not in danger of becoming extinct because of the extensive efforts to restore the species. These efforts include monitoring by tribes and states, as well as hatchery rearing and stocking initiatives. As a result, there are now self-sustaining populations of sturgeon in the tributaries of Lake Superior.

“I believe we are making significant progress in conserving lake sturgeon, and I don’t think it is necessary to have a federal listing,” Baker expressed confidently.

According to fisheries biologist Ben Michaels from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, tribal nations are anticipated to provide significant feedback to the federal government regarding its upcoming decision on the protection of lake sturgeon. Michaels mentioned that tribes have actively participated in the FWS’s data collection process for this species.

Lake sturgeon holds a significant cultural and spiritual value for the Native Ojibwe Peoples, as it is considered a sacred clan animal. Preserving their treaty rights is of utmost importance to them.” This is according to Michaels, who emphasizes the special importance of lake sturgeon to the Ojibwe community.

A Native Michigander expressed optimism about the potential benefits of federal protections for lake sturgeon, highlighting the positive outcomes for both the fish species and Indigenous communities.

Nichole Keway Biber, an environmental advocate and member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa tribe, emphasized the significance of protecting lake sturgeon not only for its ecological benefits but also for revitalizing cultural practices and traditions within tribal nations.

In the Anishinaabemowin language, those born into the clan connected with sturgeon, known as N’me, have the essential role of ensuring good governance through mediation, scholarship, and balanced thinking. The revival of the sturgeon species would be greatly appreciated.

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MBS Staff
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