Volunteers on mission to save prehistoric fish

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Onaway — Fifteen years ago, Brenda Archambo organized a grass-roots effort to protect the huge, prehistoric lake sturgeon.

Archambo of Cheboygan County remembers the first time she ever saw the fish, which has been around for well over 200 million years.

"I was 6 years old, and living with my grandfather on Burt Lake," said Archambo. "We were ice fishing when someone brought up a sturgeon. I looked into its eyes and have been fascinated ever since."

Over the years, overfishing and the loss of spawning habitat has threatened the survival of the species, which is rare throughout North America. Their numbers have been in decline due to several factors, including poaching for their valuable roe, or mass of eggs, which is harvested and sold as caviar.

Researchers predicted the fish would be extinct within 50 years.

Protecting the fish, improving its habitat and working to ensure the continuation of the species has been the goal of the Black Lake chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow since 1999. Archambo is known as sturgeon general of the Black Lake chapter.

"We've become a four-legged stool," Archambo said of the group that tries to protect the fish that live in the deep waters of Black Lake, Burt Lake and Mullet Lake, in Cheboygan County. "Management, assessment, law enforcement and progressive public involvement."

The group brings in hundreds of volunteer guardians, who, with the help of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, watch several miles of prime Black River spawning sites to prevent poachers from taking the fish from the shallow waters. Last year, 400 volunteers donated close to 4,000 hours over the two-month spawning period, from mid-April to mid-June.

Dave Borgeson, Northern Lake Huron Management Unit Supervisor of the Fisheries Division of the DNR, said the sturgeon population declined by two-thirds between 1975 when they did their first population estimates and 1997.

"Half of this loss was attributed to fishing," he said. "We suspected a poaching problem due partly to the decline. We'd find fish heads and other parts."

It's illegal to fish for sturgeon in the Great Lakes, but anglers who buy a lake sturgeon fishing tag are allowed to catch one fish per year in specific waterways during certain months. The fish have to be about 42-50 inches long.

Borgeson said instances of poaching have markedly decreased over the past few years, mainly through the efforts of groups such as Sturgeon for Tomorrow.

Staff from Michigan State University's Fish and Wildlife Department, along with the DNR and the Tower-Kleber Limited Partnership, are raising sturgeon at a streamside hatchery on the Black River next to the Kleber Dam. Researchers have been studying the species, tagging, placing tracking devices on them and measuring captured fish as they come into the river each spring to spawn.

Kim Scriber of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at MSU is on the river this spring with a group of fisheries technicians. He said the university became involved in sturgeon research in 2001 and have been the lead research team since 2003.

"We employ four to six technicians each year and have had 10 graduate students doing research as part of their studies," Scriber said. "It's an absolute incredible opportunity to work with a threatened species, long-term.

"Lake sturgeon are not successfully reproducing on the Great Lakes. We are restoring the species with this unique population."

Scriber said MSU has received more than $2 million in grants from 2001-15 to fund the program.

Sturgeon are found in the Great Lakes, rivers and smaller inland lakes, Borgeson said. They especially like areas where rivers and streams are deep enough and have good, rocky spawning habitat, such as the St. Clair River. The Muskegon, Manistee and Kalamazoo rivers have good natural spawning systems, as well, he said.

Live to be 100

Females spawn when they are 17-30 years old, with males spawning from 12-20 years old. The fish can easily live more than 100 years and reach a weight of 200 pounds.

Recently, the Black River sturgeon guardians, the volunteers who camp along the river for varying lengths of time, were equipped with DNR cell phones and distinctive hats.

The crew from MSU arrived mid-morning and hiked upstream where they gathered in the river. Three researchers in wet suits, with nets and snorkeling gear, swam the deeper portions of the river, while the rest of the crew followed with recording and other equipment.

"We put two microchips in the fish, they allow us to know which fish was tagged, when, and where," Scriber said. "We also place three-inch 'floy tags,' which are color-coded.

"The outcome of the offspring and which fish successfully spawned, is very important to our research."

Tags on fish in the river from previous years can be easily spotted by the swimmers and the information is passed to the onshore crew.

A 106-pound female lake sturgeon is prepared to be released back into the Black River.

Fish are tagged and studied

Untagged fish are netted and taken to shore, where they are measured, weighed, tagged and have tracking devices injected under the skin. Samples of eggs or sperm are collected and the fish are released, unharmed, into the river.

"The entire population (of lake sturgeon) on Black Lake spawn over just a two-kilometer area. This is unparalleled anywhere else. These fish live a very long time, so we can study those fish." Scriber said.

Eggs and sperm are collected, with fertilization taking place within two weeks after collection at the hatchery. The resulting fish grow rapidly.

By August, they are five to 10 inches in length and will be released into the river in the fall. The first three years, the fish grow rapidly, with an estimated 95 percent survival rate.

Hundreds of sturgeon are returned into the three area lakes in September, where they are monitored.

The heaviest fish recorded recently was 125 pounds, with 145 fish tagged mid-week in early May. Of those, 120 were untagged fish and spotted for the first time fish, which was good news to researchers, the number showing the success of the program to date.


(231) 883-1588

How to help

■Volunteers to patrol are needed for this season.

■Information and registration forms can be found at Sturgeon For Tomorrow's website, www.sturgeonfortomorrow.org/volunteer-form.php.