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June 19, 2012

 

Tunison Lab saving sturgeon

Fish

Photo provided by U.S. Geological Survey
Dawn Dittman, a biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey’s aquatic research lab in Cortlandville, holds a lake sturgeon caught at the Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area in Baldwinsville for data collection as part of restoration efforts in New York. The fish was released unharmed.

By STEVE HUGHES
Staff Reporter
shughes@cortlandstandardnews.net

CORTLANDVILLE — Lurking along the bottom of several New York waterways is an ancient creature that can live as long as a human, grow to 7 feet in length and weigh 300 pounds.
The fish is called the lake sturgeon and due to the efforts of researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey Tunison Laboratory of Aquatic Science in Cortlandville and a restocking program by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the species is making a comeback in New York.
On Monday, the department announced that three mature pregnant females had been found this past spring.
It was a milestone event for the department, Joe Martens, the department’s commissioner, said in a news release.
“This is truly a significant event,” he said. “It is a great example of how, with good science, we can restore a species that nearly disappeared from our state.”
Lake sturgeon, the largest freshwater fish in the Great Lakes system, were nearly driven to extinction in the 1800s due to the building of dams and overfishing.
They have a lifespan of up to 60 years and sometimes over 100 years. In 1953, a Canadian fisherman caught a sturgeon that was estimated to be 154 years old.
The monster fish, which first appeared around 136 million years ago, were prized for their eggs, making it a valuable target for commercial fishing in the 1800s.
In 1885, 10,000 pounds of sturgeon were harvested from Lake Erie alone.
Catching a pregnant fish during spawning season is normally not news but in this case, it was a milestone for the department and Tunison labs.
In 1995 the state restocked Oneida Lake and Cayuga Lake, as well as Black Lake and the Oswegatchie River in St. Lawrence County, with 18,000 sturgeon.
Then state biologists had to sit back and wait. Sturgeon take years to mature and only spawn every few years.
Dawn Dittman, a research ecologist with the Tunison Lab, captured two pregnant females downstream of Oneida Lake earlier this spring.
The presence of pregnant females in multiple waterways means the program will likely succeed, Dittman said.
Her job is to find out where the fish are spreading and how fast they are growing.
Dittman knew going into this spring she had a good chance of finding some pregnant females.
“Based on what I saw last year, I thought this year had to be the year,” she said. “I knew we were getting close to our first reproduction.”
The next step is to go back in September and find sturgeon larvae.
There is no accurate estimate on how many sturgeon are in New York lakes and rivers.
The lab provides the research and follow-up information that the state Department of Environmental Conservation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cannot afford to. That information is used to make decisions on fish stocking and species health.
The department decided to reintroduce lake sturgeon to help restore local ecosystems.
Sturgeon are bottom feeders and often feed on two invasive species, zebra mussels and round gobies, which were introduced from the Black Sea, in Europe.
“We’re putting a vital link back into the food web,” Dittman said.
Not only will the big fish help the lakes’ ecosystems but they will also provide an exciting challenge to fishermen in the future.
It is illegal to target lake sturgeon but anglers do occasionally reel one in, many weighing over 50 pounds.
It is a special moment when you get to take a picture next to one, Dittman said.
“I’ve never seen an angler, including myself, who didn’t have a big smile on their face,” she said.

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