Ancient Fish Gains Protection
Once Vanishing, the Sturgeon Swims Back Into View
By Richard Mertens
S H I O C T O N, Wis.- At a lonely bend on Wisconsin's
Wolf River, Jane and Lloyd Merkel balance on some rocks
and peer down into the tea-brown water.
"Look, Lloyd!" Mrs. Merkel says. "Isn't
she a beauty?" A gray fish as long as a fence post
swims past, its big tail making slow undulations. There
are dozens and perhaps scores of the big fish in the river.
They appear and disappear, rising out of the deep to nuzzle
and splash in the shallows. They have spiky backs, barbed
snouts, and mouths like vacuum cleaners. They are like
nothing else the Merkels have ever seen.
Sturgeons are struggling to survive the world over, from
the Caspian Sea in Central Asia to Chesapeake Bay and
the Missouri River. Dams, pollution, and the appetite
for caviar - raw sturgeon eggs - have made life difficult
for a fish that has endured since the Cretaceous period,
the age of dinosaurs.
But lately there have been growing efforts to protect
sturgeons and, in some places, to restore them to waters
where they had vanished. More people like the Merkels
will start to see these striking fish for the first time.
Next month, for example, biologists from the Tennessee
Aquarium in Chattanooga plan to release several hundred
young lake sturgeon into the French Broad River upstream
of Knoxville as part of a long-term effort to restore
the fish to the Tennessee River system.
In May, when it last released sturgeons in the French
Broad, a crowd of officials and journalists gathered to
watch, a measure of the attention that sturgeons are receiving
in some places.
"It was quite a big event," says Chris Coco,
an Aquarium biologist. "It's an example of a fish
that was gone and now it's back."
Eastern Wisconsin is one of the few places where sturgeons
thrive, thanks in part to the enthusiasm of ordinary people
like the Merkels. Each spring, hundreds of "sturgeon
guards" volunteer to spend a 12-hour shift watching
over spawning areas to discourage poachers.
To aficionados, sturgeons have many charms. They have
an ancient pedigree, a bizarre appearance, and immense
The lake sturgeon, which lives in the Mississippi River
system and the Great Lakes region, is only a middling
sturgeon, but it can grow to more than six feet and over
Sturgeons are also long lived. In 1953, a 6-½-foot
lake sturgeon caught in the Lake of the Woods, in Ontario,
was determined to be 152 years old. It had been a fingerling
during the first Jefferson administration.
Sturgeons are survivors. They live a largely hidden life,
snuffling along the bottom of lakes and rivers and eating
almost anything they bump into. As Fred Binkowski, a scientist
at the Great Lakes Water Institute, says, "Whatever
killed the dinosaurs didn't kill sturgeons."
And yet sturgeons have declined almost everywhere. The
recent collapse of the Caspian Sea sturgeon, the source
of most of the world's caviar, is only the best-known
example. Until the 19th century, sturgeons abounded in
North America, too. Native Americans depended upon them
for food in the spring. Later, European Americans fed
them to pigs, plowed them under as fertilizer, and burned
their dried, oily carcasses as fuel in steamboats. Nineteenth-century
fishermen harvested them in large numbers, and by the
mid-20th century, overfishing, pollution, and dam construction
had decimated sturgeons in many places.
Eight species of sturgeon live in American waters today.
Four are endangered and another is threatened; all are
watched closely by scientists and conservationists. Unlike
most other fish, sturgeon mature late and reproduce slowly.
They cannot easily be brought back from the brink. Ron
Bruch, a sturgeon expert with the Wisconsin Department
of Natural Resources, says that sturgeons survive in the
Great Lakes only in scattered remnants, even though large-scale
commercial fishing for them ended a century ago.
"Populations are just now being to increase to where
we can catch a fish now and then," he says. "It's
taken that long."
Efforts to revive sturgeon populations reflect not just
a new respect for a once disdained fish, but also dramatic
improvements in water quality. Just last month, biologists
released thousands of lake sturgeon fry in Wisconsin's
Milwaukee and Manitowoc rivers, which empty into Lake
Michigan, after concluding that cleaner water and the
removal of dams might allow sturgeons to flourish once
But such efforts raise questions about how far the nation's
waters might be returned to nature. Atlantic and shortnose
sturgeons once abounded in Chesapeake Bay. Today, they
are rare. David Secor, a sturgeon expert at the Chesapeake
Biological Laboratory, doubts they will ever return in
significant numbers because farming in the surrounding
countryside has so altered the bay.
"We can't go back to water quality as it was in
the 19th century," Secor says. "I think it's
reasonable to strive for, but I don't think we're going
to get there."
Nursing Their Rivers
On the Missouri, the pallid sturgeon, a federally endangered
species, is in trouble largely because the river has been
transformed since Lewis and Clark ascended it in 1804.
Much of it has been damned and dredged for flood control
and barges, eliminating backwaters and shallows fish need
for spawning. Dams and reservoirs have muted seasonal
flows, so that the river runs neither as high in the spring
nor as low in the summer as it once did. Earlier this
month, a federal judge ordered the Army Corps of Engineers
to lower water levels to help save sturgeon and two endangered
"Nobody wants the big floods to come back,"
says Jim Milligan, a project leader for the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service. "But we think it can be tweaked
so that the spring rise is a little higher and the summer
lows a little lower."
A more recent threat to North American sturgeons is the
demand for caviar. With less caviar coming from the Caspian
Sea, the industry has turned increasingly to America,
especially to the shovelnose sturgeon, which lives in
the Mississippi. In the past half decade commercial fishermen
have netted the shovelnose in unprecedented numbers, and
the population has plummeted.
In a few places, though, sturgeons have been nursed back
to abundance. Shortnose sturgeon are thriving again in
the upper Hudson River, thanks to a cleaner river. In
eastern Wisconsin, the number of lake sturgeon has increased
five-fold since the 1950s. Tougher game laws have helped,
but so has a transformation in public attitude. Only a
few decades ago, the people of Shiocton were notorious
as poachers. Today, local sturgeons attract admirers.
"It's kind of an honor, to help preserve them for
future kids," says Mrs. Merkel, as sturgeons thrash
at her feet.