Rearing Facility Proposed To Add Lake Sturgeon To Maumee River

By on April 8, 2016
Jessica Sherman, doctoral student at University of Toledo, holds a lake sturgeon at the Black Lake Fish Hatchery, located near Onaway, Mich. (Credit: Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

In the 1800s, lake sturgeon were so plentiful in Lake Erie that they were seen as a nuisance. Commercial fishing crews wanted them gone because they were so large and strong that they could essentially destroy most fishing nets. And they were also threatened because people wanted to use their eggs to make caviar.

That legacy hasn’t been good to the fish species, as it is listed as endangered in Ohio. This status is partly supported because lake sturgeon don’t have many nearby rivers in which to spawn. The closest include the Niagara River and the St. Clair – Detroit River.

But a new effort underway in the Maumee River may soon help to support future spawning of the endangered sturgeon there. If they can secure $90,000 in federal funding for the work, researchers at the University of Toledo, Toledo Zoo and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources are hoping to set up a streamside rearing facility.

The facility would be about the size of a trailer, permitting just enough space for scientists to hatch and raise sturgeon eggs. The ultimate goal from there is to release 3,000 juvenile sturgeon into the Maumee River every year for several years.

Only half of the fish would be raised using Maumee River water. The other half would be raised using water from other areas as a control.

Juvenile lake sturgeon. (Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Juvenile lake sturgeon. (Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Lake sturgeon typically imprint where they were born and look to return when they get old enough to spawn themselves. By rearing half in waters other than the Maumee River, scientists hope to learn more about the resiliency and life cycles of lake sturgeon.

But taking a more measured approach to the process, including figuring out how much spawning and nursery habitat exists in the river, also has other benefits. Researchers say that it’s important to make sure the river is going to support the sturgeon before beginning the construction of a rearing facility.

Habitat they need as juveniles include soft, sandy areas. As adults, harder terrain is better because they can use it for spawning. Rocks are especially important because their eggs settle into them, achieving protection from predators and fast currents.

Areas like that, those that support spawning, are found in around 25 percent of the Maumee River. And while that doesn’t sound like much, it’s more than enough when compared to other waterways where sturgeon have been able to successfully reproduce, in areas with less than 10 percent spawning habitat in some cases.

If funding for the new streamside facility comes through, the earliest that rearing would begin would be in the spring of 2017. The first batch of lake sturgeon could then be stocked in the fall of that year.

From that point, scientists would begin waiting anywhere from 15 to 20 years for the fish to make it back to the Maumee River to spawn. It takes them a lot longer to mature to the point of reproduction compared to other fish. And even after they grow to that point, they commonly don’t spawn but every four or five years.

Top image: Jessica Sherman, doctoral student at University of Toledo, holds a lake sturgeon at the Black Lake Fish Hatchery, located near Onaway, Mich. (Credit: Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

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