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Great Lakes Article:

Woman's 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 one.

"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 can.

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 thrive.

Now in her 40s, she first saw a sturgeon when she was 6.

"It's like looking into the eye of a dinosaur," she said.

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 Society.

"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 for poachers.

So far this spring, researchers have netted, measured, weighed, tagged and released 84. They were looking for number 85.

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.


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