Fish commission gets behind plan for more sturgeon
Written by Muskegon Chronicle   
Thursday, 31 March 2005 09:36

A bi-national fish management agency has jumped on the sturgeon rehabilitation bandwagon, a development that will increase the likelihood that thousands of the huge fish will someday return to the lower Muskegon River.

The Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Fishery Commission has started work on a sturgeon rehabilitation strategy for the entire Lake Michigan basin. The commission will work with representatives of the four Lake Michigan states -- Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin -- to develop a plan to boost the lake's decimated lake sturgeon population.

Efforts to increase the Lake Michigan sturgeon population, which plummeted from more than 5 million fish in the 1800s to less than 5,000 today, will play out in the Muskegon River and other rivers that flow into the lake, said Ed Baker, a fisheries research biologist at the DNR's Marquette fisheries station. Baker serves on the fishery commission's Lake Michigan Committee, which oversees fish management issues in the lake.

"Interest in lake sturgeon has been building for 10 to 15 years," Baker said. "I think it's finally reached a point where the (fish management) agencies around Lake Michigan need to start working together to rehabilitate the species. Everyone recognizes that it's time."

University of Georgia scientist Paul Vecsei has spent the past four springs studying the Muskegon River's native sturgeon population. His work, part of a $300,000 study, has found that there are, at most, 100 adult sturgeon remaining in the Muskegon stock.

Baker said the fishery commission's involvement in sturgeon restoration could reap huge benefits for Michigan rivers in about 20 years. He said fish management agencies must proceed slowly to avoid creating large numbers of inbred sturgeon, which could be biologically disastrous.

The U.S. and Canadian governments formed the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in 1955 to restore lake trout in the Great Lakes, which were decimated by sea lamprey. A half-century later, there is a self-sustaining lake trout population in Lake Superior and nonnative lamprey have been largely controlled in all the Great Lakes.

Sturgeon were plundered in the 1800s by Great Lakes commercial fishermen who disliked the mammoth fish because they damaged fish nets. Sturgeon then became victims of overfishing when commercial fishermen found a market for sturgeon caviar.

Vecsei's study of the Muskegon River's sturgeon population will play a major role in determining whether more sturgeon are stocked in the river in the future, Baker said.

Because a previous state study deemed the Muskegon a high priority river for sturgeon rehabilitation efforts, Baker said there is a good chance more of the fish will be stocked in the Muskegon in the future.

Before that happens, however, scientists must determine if the 100 or so adult sturgeon that are native to the Muskegon River have become too inbred to support a larger, healthy, population. If too many of the fish are in-bred, Baker said the state would need to import sturgeon from elsewhere to boost the Muskegon's struggling sturgeon fishery.

Vecsei has said the Muskegon River's native sturgeon population will become extinct without human intervention.

Baker said he is betting on a much larger sturgeon population in the river, but not before 2020.

"For all the work we're doing now, we won't see the results for 20 years down the road," he said.

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