Sturgeon find is 'a gold nugget'
Written by Grand Rapids Press   
Friday, 07 January 2005 13:12
Joe Siska saw the fish at a distance, but figured it was another Lake Michigan salmon washed up on shore. The South Haven resident and avid beach walker was used to seeing the remnants of big fish along the shoreline.

Then he got closer and found it wasn't a salmon.

"I saw its mouth and knew exactly what it was," says Siska of the 5-foot long lake sturgeon he found frozen in the sand. "I've seen thousands of fish along the shore on my walks, but this was the first time I ever found a sturgeon."

Siska, a collector of driftwood and other beach findings, likened the sturgeon to "a gold nugget," a rare occurrence.

State fisheries officials, who are concerned about the struggling sturgeon population, agree.

Sturgeon protected

"We get calls maybe twice a year about sturgeon," said Jay Wesley, the DNR's fisheries supervisor for southwest Michigan. "There are fish-sampling efforts taking place all over the lake and it's possible they get caught in a gill net or get hooked by an angler or just die of natural causes."

Lake sturgeon are a protected species in Michigan. It is illegal to fish for them on most waters. The only exceptions are Otsego Lake in Otsego County, Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River and Black Lake in Cheboygan County, where restrictive seasons or regulations are in place. Anglers who hook them accidentally on any other water are required to release the fish.

Siska's find was a juvenile in sturgeon terms. The big fish was estimated to be 30 years old. Lake sturgeon are known to live 150 years. They can grow to more than 100 pounds and do not reach sexual maturity for 15 to 20 years, according to Wesley.

The state record sturgeon is 193 pounds. It was caught in 1974 on Mullett Lake.

Siska's fish was a male and was naturally reproduced rather than grown in the state's Wolf Lake Hatchery in Mattawan.

"Any fish that is stocked would have a mark," said Wesley. "Those fish have a tiny tag

inserted in their back which we can read to learn when and where the fish was stocked.

"We have some natural reproduction out there. It's very limited on southern rivers because of the limited number of adults we have."

Which is why DNR biologists were interested to collect and study the fish Siska found.

Craig Smith, the biologist who responded to Siska's call, said a tissue sample would be taken from the fish in order to analyze its DNA, a distinct marker that would let biologists know where the fish came from. He suspects it may have been born to one of the sturgeon populations found on the St. Joseph, Kalamazoo or Grand rivers.

The fish could have come from any number of rivers, including rivers in Wisconsin, according to Wesley. The DNA should help determine which one.

Michigan is represented on a lakewide sturgeon working group with other neighboring states. It's scientists have been compiling lakewide data about the sturgeon,

Siska's fish also will be analyzed to determine what toxic compounds it may have in its tissues. Fish typically ingest toxic chemicals by eating other fish or organisms that contain them. Sturgeon are bottom feeders with sucker mouths that cruise shallow waters.

The compounds are generally stored in body fat. Larger and older fish typically have greater concentrations than younger and smaller fish. The process is called bioaccumulation.

"These are really long-lived fish and we don't understand yet how they bioaccumulate these compounds," said Wesley."

The demise of lake sturgeon began in the late 1800's as the commercial fishing industry grew in the Great Lakes region. Sturgeon were considered a trash fish that fouled the nets. They were reportedly used as fertilizer, even stacked up like cordwood to used as fuel for steamships.

"They created havoc with the commercial fishery," said Wesley. "The construction of dams is another reason for their demise.

"All of the main rivers they used for spawning were dammed and they couldn't get to their spawning grounds."

Lake sturgeon restoration began in earnest in the 1990's throughout the region. But the need for their protection and more restrictive rules was recognized as early as the 1950's.

Anglers or beachcombers who stumble upon a sturgeon, live or dead, are encouraged to call Wesley at (269) 685-6851.

"We still don't know a lot about them and any information we get is useful," he said.

 
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