devotion to prehistoric fish is catchy
By Pat Shellenbarger
The Associated Press
Published May 31, 2004
INDIAN RIVER, Mich. (AP) Patrick Forsythe, a Michigan
State University graduate student in zoology, spotted
"It's a pretty big fish," he said, and a dark
form outflanked him in the chest-deep water. He ran after
it as fast as a man carrying a large net and wearing waders
With the help of Patrick Van Daele, a state Department
of Natural Resources fisheries technician, and Kristin
Bott, another Michigan State graduate student, the lake
sturgeon, 6 feet long and more than 100 pounds, surrendered.
The idea was to save the sturgeon. Twenty miles away,
a woman in a black business suit behind a desk, hair perfectly
styled, nails bright red, jewelry in place, was going
to see to that.
Brenda Archambo's title is executive director of the
Indian River Chamber of Commerce, but her friends call
her the Sturgeon General.
"Make no mistake about it," she said. "This
is my day job. My life's work is the sturgeon." She
added: "When May comes, I'm gonna be out on the river."
Thanks to her efforts, so are hundreds of volunteers
who take up posts along the Black River around the clock
late April through May, when the sturgeon spawn, to guard
them against poachers.
Archambo is the founder and president of the Sturgeon
for Tomorrow Michigan chapter, a nonprofit dedicated to
protecting the fish and promoting research to help it
Now in her 40s, she first saw a sturgeon when she was
"It's like looking into the eye of a dinosaur,"
Sturgeon have been around since the Upper Cretaceous
period 136 million years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed.
Lake sturgeon, one of 27 species worldwide, were once
plentiful throughout the Great Lakes, its tributaries
and some large inland lakes.
But it's been rough since then.
In some states, they are gone. In Michigan, they are
few and scattered throughout the Great Lakes and in a
chain of lakes across the northern Lower Peninsula, including
Mullet, Burt and Black lakes.
Nineteenth century commercial fishermen considered them
a nuisance for tearing their nets, and they slaughtered
them en masse, tossing them on shore to rot.
Twentieth century fishermen valued their flesh and eggs
and harvested them by the ton.
Dams blocked the sturgeons' way to historical spawning
grounds in rivers, and logging and pollution caused silt
and vegetation to clog the rivers. Poachers speared the
docile fish, some selling the eggs caviar
for thousands of dollars.
Thus, the lake sturgeon, the largest fish in the Great
Lakes region, joined the threatened list in Michigan.
In 1995, Archambo wrote to the DNR, offering to help.
The DNR estimated Black Lake's sturgeon population had
declined 66 percent since 1975. Archambo believed poaching
was largely responsible for the sturgeon's decline.
"It was real bad," said her husband, Gil. "They
would take 10, maybe a hundred times what was taken in
legal fishing. It was commonplace. Everyone did it. Their
fathers did it. Their grandfathers did it."
In 1999, she founded Sturgeon for Tomorrow, modeled after
a program by the same name at Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin.
Boy Scout troops, Vietnam vets, off-duty National Guard
members, sportsmen, retirees, people from throughout Michigan,
Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Ontario offered
to take shifts camping along the Black River during the
spawning fun to protect the sturgeon from poachers.
Each year, about 350 people volunteer to spend a total
of 3,800 hours along the river.
Male sturgeon typically live 55 years and don't reach
reproductive age until they are 12 to 20 years old. Females
can live 80 to 150 years and don't begin spawning until
they are 20 to 25 years old.
The DNR's official position was the sturgeon in Black
Lake were not reproducing and eventually would die out.
Archambo didn't believe it.
In 2000, a Central Michigan University student began
researching the question. The past few years, Michigan
State University and the DNR have taken over the research.
"She's very enthusiastic, and she's a very intelligent
person. She picks this stuff up very quickly," said
Ron Bruch, fisheries supervisor for the Wisconsin DNR
and the U.S. representative for the World Sturgeon Conservation
"What I do have is in-your-face, up-front, living-with-these-fish
passion for it," Archambo said. "It's not something
you learn in a textbook. What's going on out on the river
is not something you're going to find in a textbook. We're
creating what's going into the textbooks."
Last spring, the volunteers and researchers in the Black
River netted 16,300 tiny sturgeon each a a half
to three-quarters of an inch long grew them to
several inches in a DNR's hatchery, then released the
6,000 survivors into Black, Mullet and Burt lakes.
Forsythe and Bott recently gathered thousands of sturgeon
eggs on round floor-buffing pads they had placed in the
river. They hope to hatch them in a small, makeshift hatchery
near Black Lake, gather genetic data to determine how
many of the lake's sturgeon are reproducing, then release
them into the lake. The more that are reproducing, the
healthier the sturgeon population.
"Our mission is to find out the truth," Archambo
said. "The truth is we have a spawning stock of sturgeon
that are naturally reproducing."
Every February, the DNR allows a limited number of fishermen
to spear sturgeon on Black Lake. When a total of five
sturgeon are taken, the season is over. Archambo doesn't
oppose the sturgeon season, believing it helps generate
interest in the fish's survival.
The DNR estimates there are 1,300 sturgeon in Black Lake,
including 550 adults.
"We believe there are more than that," Archambo
said, "because of what we see."
At times during the season's two spawning runs, the river
is alive with sturgeon, most 4 or 5 feet long, some 6
feet or more. Because the fish are so concentrated while
spawning and so unafraid of humans, they make easy prey
So far this spring, researchers have netted, measured,
weighed, tagged and released 84. They were looking for
They waded downstream, pushed along by a strong current,
winding through a forest of spruce, pine and cedar. A
light sprinkle became a downpour, but the three pressed
on. They spotted a large sturgeon, closed in and wrestled
it into submission. They carried it close to shore, measured
its length at 71 inches, its girth at 32 inches, its weight
at more than 100 pounds.
The sturgeon, this one a female, looked prehistoric,
devoid of scales and with rows of bone-like plates along
its back and sides. Given her size, she could be 80, maybe
100 years old.
Forsythe attached a couple of small, fluorescent tags
to the fish, clipped a piece of fin for DNA testing and
implanted a microchip under the skin, assigning the sturgeon
a 10-digit number for future identification. He gently
stroked the sturgeon on the back "A nice,
little shoulder rub to calm her down a bit," he said
then released her.
The three waded on, stalking another 6-footer.
"We do it because it's just in our grain,"
Archambo said. "They are part of Mother Earth. They
are pretty well entrenched with our culture. We live with
them. It's not just me. There are people all over who
care about them."
Sturgeon for Tomorrow is expanding to Mullet and Burt
lakes, Archambo said, and hopes to develop a program for
stabilizing the banks of the Black River to keep silt
from ruining the spawning grounds.
She believes the guard program has discouraged most poachers,
but added: "Is it still happening? Probably."
Were it not for Sturgeon for Tomorrow, the big fish likely
would disappear from Black Lake, said Ed Baker, a DNR
fisheries research biologist.
Because of the fish's long life expectancy and slow sexual
maturity, it's too early to tell whether the population
is rebounding, he said.
But Archambo said, "There's no question it's increasing.
We can end up with tens of thousands of sturgeon swimming
around here. We're looking 50, 75, 100 years from now.
We're not gonna be here."
She hopes the sturgeon will be.