Great Lakes 'legend' makes a comeback
Written by Toronto Star   
Wednesday, 23 February 2005 11:53
After decades of decline, a prehistoric giant is reawakening in the deep waters of the Great Lakes.


The lake sturgeon, a fish that can grow to nearly three metres and weigh 135 kilogram , has inspired legend worthy of its size and extraordinary life.


In Algonquin mythology, a mighty sturgeon once swallowed Hiawatha. And a British author and researcher has suggested that the Loch Ness monster is really a giant sturgeon.


"They are creatures of legend," said commercial fisherman Tim Purdy. "The biggest one we've ever landed measured seven feet, nine inches and weighed 250 pounds. Biologists told us it was well over 100 years old."


Nearly wiped out by overfishing at the turn of the century, there is evidence this leviathan species, which is millions of years older than the Great Lakes and rivers that sustain it, is making a comeback.


"A lot of young sturgeon have been appearing in southern Lake Huron. I think something is changing," said Purdy, whose family has been running a commercial fishery on Lake Huron for four generations.


Next month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which lists sturgeon as a threatened species, will begin a three-year project to see if the fish has returned to spawn on the Saginaw River in Michigan.


River dams, logging operations that scoured river bottoms and industrial pollution combined to eradicate most sturgeon spawning grounds in the U.S.


The fish is not endangered in Canada but it's nowhere nearly as plentiful as the monsters that were pulled ashore in such numbers around 1900 "that they couldn't sell them all and had to bury them in pits, my grandfather told me," said retired Port Stanley commercial fisherman Sam Vary.


The numbers continued to dwindle and bottomed out in the 1980s but are now showing signs of recovering. The St. Clair-Detroit River corridor contains 25,000 sturgeon, the U.S. Wildlife Service estimates.


"There are tons of sturgeon in western Lake Erie, especially around the mouth of the Detroit River," said Steve Vary, Sam's son. "They're always tearing the hell out of our nets. I betcha there's a lot more sturgeon there than they can imagine."


Lloyd Mohr, a spokesman with the natural resources ministry, said the sturgeon "are probably holding their own," but he uses the word "recovery" with caution.


"We're seeing lots of small sturgeon on a regular basis," said Mohr. "Maybe we're seeing more of them because we're looking harder."


Small sturgeon are years from reaching reproductive age so it may take 50 years for these youngsters to have an impact, he said.


The typical lifespan of lake sturgeon is 55 years for males and 80 to 150 years for females. Males spawn once every two to seven years and females, beginning at 24 years of age, lay their eggs every four to nine years, resulting in only 10 to 20 per cent of the population spawning during a given year.


The lake sturgeon and its predecessors have been around for 130 million years. The fish looks like a fossil sprung to life, with a pointy mouth, jutting rows of armoured plates and a distinct shark-like tail.


Despite its intimidating look and size, the sturgeon is harmless. It has no teeth and feeds on the lake's bottom on a diet consisting of insects, crustaceans, fish and other organisms.


It may be that a recent invader of the Great Lakes has fuelled the sturgeon's return.


"The sturgeon started appearing in greater numbers just about the time the zebra mussels appeared in the Great Lakes. We noticed that the sturgeons' stomachs were full of crushed zebra-mussel shells," Purdy said.
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