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Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010

The Almighty Sturgeon

Wisconsin and the great fish

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The muskie may be Wisconsin’s official “state fish,” but it is the almighty sturgeon that is revered by the Menominee and other Wisconsin Indians and is at the heart of a number of time-honored Wisconsin traditions.

To spot a sturgeon is to glimpse a fish born of the Mesozoic era, more than 150 million years ago, when dinosaurs populated the Earth. Even as the planet and its bodies of water underwent tremendous change, the sturgeon survived, swimming and spawning in rivers, lakes and oceans. According to People of the Sturgeon: Wisconsin’s Love Affair With an Ancient Fish, written by Kathleen Schmitt Kline, Ronald Bruch, Fred Binkowski (of the Great Lakes WATER Institute) and Bob Rashid, lake sturgeon originated in the Mississippi River and migrated to the Great Lakes when a glacier melted about 14,000 years ago.

The lake sturgeon has retained many of its primitive features over millions of years. It shares some of the same streamlined characteristics of a shark, another ancient animal, like an elongated body with a skeleton made of cartilage and a tail fin with an upper lobe longer than its lower lobe. The fish also lacks scales, and instead has thick, tough skin armored with bony plates called scutes. With the potential to reach 300 pounds, it’s one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, and it can live for a century.

As bottom dwellers, lake sturgeon cruise close to the bottom of a lake or riverbed, using barbels—four “whiskers” at the front of the snout—to sense food. Once the fish finds something of interest, such as snails, insects, leeches, crawdads and clams, it extends a wide, rubbery, tube-like appendage out of its mouth and sucks up the meal.

In spring, males and females swim up the river of their birth, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles to find the perfect rocky substratum for spawning. Fertilized eggs need an oxygen-rich environment to survive, so spawning in shallow, rushing water is critical. According to People of the Sturgeon, “No more than one out of every 50,000 of the eggs released by a female is likely to survive and grow into an adult.”

Sturgeon were to the Menominee, Ojibwa, Oneida, Potawatomi, Sauk and Winnebago tribes what buffalo were to the Great Plains Indians—the giant fish was both honored and hunted. Imagine the gratitude and celebration when, after a long, freezing winter when food was scarce, the sturgeon spawning migration would signal a welcome period of abundance. The Menominee name for the fish is Namaew (Nama’o), which means “first fish” or “original fish” and has spiritual significance in the tribe’s creation story.

Early European settlers weren’t impressed with the sturgeon at first glance. They didn’t want to eat what they saw as an ugly, mud-dwelling fish; plus its sharp scutes tore up their fishing nets, and rumors spread that the giant fish ate the eggs of other fish, including those of valuable commercial species such as trout and whitefish. Considered both a nuisance and a menace, lake sturgeon were “clubbed to death, burned for fuel, and plowed into fields for compost.”

It wasn’t until the last half of the 19th century that settlers realized the economic value of the lake sturgeon and started intensively catching them for, among other things, their eggs, which can be made into caviar. Dams built for logging and energy blocked sturgeon spawning migrations and isolated their populations. Pollution and overfishing were added to the mix, and by the 1900s Wisconsin’s lake sturgeon populations crashed to about 10% of what they had been before European settlement.

The foundation of the world’s first sturgeon management program was developed in 1903 when Wisconsin established a modest size limit of 8 pounds, followed by closure of the harvest season in 1915. Legal harvest of sturgeon began again in 1931 on the Lake Winnebago system with the first regulated spearing season. Since then the Department of Natural Resources, university researchers, state fisheries biologists and a persevering group of sturgeon enthusiasts known as Sturgeon for Tomorrow has developed strong regulations to better protect the lake sturgeon populations. The world’s largest and healthiest lake sturgeon population flourishes in Lake Winnebago, and the fish is also being restored in other parts of its original range in Wisconsin.

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