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Great Lakes Article:

Sturgeon spawning watched by wildlife officials
By Mike Hoeft
Green Bay Press Gazette
April 29, 2004

DE PERE — The bulk of sturgeon spawning on the Fox River is pretty much done in a day or two. So biologists whose job it is to tag lake sturgeon as part of ongoing monitoring have to work fast.

“You’ve got to drop everything and just go,” said Rob Elliott, Great Lakes fishery biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in New Franken. The huge, bony fish are easier to catch when they’re moving slowly in shallow waters. Elliott and a team of federal and state Department of Natural Resources workers tagged about a half dozen of the threatened species in an hour Wednesday below the De Pere dam.

Over the past few days, crews saw the number of sturgeon in the area rise from a couple to a couple of dozen.

“We’ll tag as many as we can catch,” Elliott said. In the shade beneath the Claude Allouez Bridge, the group weighed, measured and tagged each fish with an internal and external tag and a radio transponder. Information gathered is used to monitor movement and estimate fishery size, growth rate and health of the population.

Over-fishing in the 1800s and loss of habitat decimated the Great Lakes sturgeon, which are now listed as a threatened species. Sturgeon are extinct in some Great Lakes tributaries, and the DNR is trying to reintroduce them in the Milwaukee and Manitowoc rivers. Sturgeon spearing is allowed on Lake Winnebago each February because it has one of the largest and healthiest populations.

The Fox River has about 50 sturgeon, third in the area behind the Menominee and Peshtigo rivers, Elliott said.

“On their own, sturgeon are slowly coming back in the Fox River,” he said. Part of the reason is that sturgeon are entering the river down the locks from the Lake Winnebago system. “We know that because of the tagged fish we caught,” he said.

Steve Gehl of Hilbert, who goes spearing on Lake Winnebago, on Wednesday watched near the De Pere dam as the mammoth fish thrashed in the shallow water. Females laid their eggs, while several males competed to fertilize them.

Gehl said he was happy to see the sturgeon population rebound. But he was not happy to see an occasional carp follow behind the sturgeon, waiting to eat the eggs from the riverbed.

“Too bad you can’t do something to stop that,” he said.

Gehl said one in his spearing party got a sturgeon last year on Lake Winnebago.

“They’re good eating,” he said.

“It’s fun to see them come upstream here,” Gehl said. “Normally you wouldn’t see the big ones unless they were in the back of somebody’s truck,” he said.

Spearing-license fees increased last year from $10 to $20 for state residents, and from $10 to $50 for nonresidents. Revenue from license sales goes specifically to sturgeon management programs. The fee hikes were authorized last year as part of the state budget repair bill.

Nearly 9,000 sturgeon-spearing licenses were sold last year, the DNR said.


Fish facts
• Lake sturgeon often grow to 3 to 5 feet long and weigh 80 to 100 pounds.

• Sturgeon live about 50 years. Female lake sturgeon don’t start spawning until they are 20-25 years old. Even then, they spawn once every three to five years.

• Sturgeon enter rivers in early spring to spawn on gravel bars in fast-flowing water and deposit millions of eggs. A sticky covering helps the eggs attach to the gravel. After a few days, the eggs sink into the gravel, where they hatch.

• Sturgeon were an important food source for many Native American tribes. Sturgeon were so abundant during the 18th century that boaters on the Great Lakes were warned of being capsized by jumping sturgeon during the spawning run.

• Their population crashed in the mid- to late 1800s because of habitat degradation and overexploitation. Sturgeon were harvested for their eggs, which were made into caviar, and for their meat, which was smoked.

Source: Wisconsin Sea Grant; Great Lakes Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey

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