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Great Lakes Article:

Biologists Breathing New Life Into Ancient Habitat of Sturgeon

New York Times

HAWANO, Wis. From a distance of 100 feet, the Wolf River below the dam here appeared to be boiling from bank to bank.

Up close, the scene was of violent thrashing as lake sturgeon gathered, five or more males crowding around a female, dark gray and tubular like smallish torpedoes, sharp tail fins creasing the surface, some of them leaping in flashing, crashing arcs.

This was the height of an annual spawning season here, about 40 miles west of Green Bay, and the sturgeon were cavorting as they have for at least 200 million years, before the age of the dinosaurs. These living relics, as Fred P. Binkowski, senior fisheries biologist of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, calls them, are at the core of new efforts to restore the fish to their ancestral waters here and far beyond.

The Great Lakes were once home to one of the earth's largest populations of sturgeons, which are rare and getting rarer elsewhere in North America, Europe and Asia. The lake sturgeon here (Acipenser fulvescens Rafinesque) can grow to more than eight feet in length. They are long-lived: females can live to over 100 and males to about 40. But females do not spawn until they are in their 20's, and then only every four years.

In the late 19th century, when Americans rather suddenly discovered a taste for sturgeon meat and the caviar of lake sturgeon, the Great Lakes were credited with producing much of the world's caviar.

The sturgeon harvest in Michigan alone was four million pounds in 1880. Overfishing and increased damming of spawning streams for power generation reduced the catch to two million pounds in 1890 and, by 1900, to a mere 200,000 pounds for all of the Great Lakes.

Similar crashes, or worse, have recently occurred in the sturgeon waters of the former Soviet Union.

But at Lake Winnebago and in its rivers and streams, the outlook is much brighter. Experts cite a conservation program begun 99 years ago at the 165,000-acre lake, whose northern tip is 50 miles south of here. Now, biologists are planning a long-term program using Winnebago stocks that ideally will begin to rehabilitate sturgeon in all five Great Lakes, starting with Lake Michigan.

The spawning lake sturgeon are netted and released at a variety of sites under the direction of Ronald M. Bruch, senior fisheries biologist of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

His team gathered at the Shawano Dam on the Wolf River as the water temperature rose above 48 degrees, which is essential for inducing spawning. After netting the squirming sturgeons, the team members heaved them onto a measuring board. A helper clipped a metal tag with a number on the tail fin while Mr. Bruch placed a tiny transponder, used for tracking, under the fish's bony back plate.

Then the fish were slid back into the river. The largest of the 350 netted over two days was just over six feet long. In the last six years, about 4,000 sturgeons, roughly 10 percent of the Winnebago adult population, have been tagged.

Mr. Bruch singled out the females for his "Bruch stroke," a rapid massage on the abdomen to force out eggs for laboratory use. Meanwhile, females underwater were expelling eggs, an average of 400,000 apiece, as males beat on their sides and bottoms in the natural manner that the Bruch stroke imitates. The eggs drift to the shallow, rocky bottom, there to be fertilized by the clouds of sperm simultaneously ejaculated at a rate of a hundred billion per fish.

"In the wild, only about 1 percent of the eggs survive, hatch and reach sexual maturity," Mr. Binkowski said. He takes eggs and sperm collected by the Bruch teams and fertilizes the eggs on the spot. Then he takes them to his laboratory, where he gets "90 percent to hatch," he said.

Besides the laboratory success, Mr. Bruch credits support for the program by the local people, who donate money, help prevent poaching and drum up legislative support.

Coinciding with the spawning is the annual Sturgeon Feast and Powwow of the Menominee Indians, who once occupied nine million acres of Wisconsin and now live on 234,000, just upriver from Shawano. The fish are central to the tribe's creation myth, and well into the 19th century the Menominee harvested spawning sturgeon at Keshena Falls where, they believed, a giant drum beaten by the high springtime waters called the fish to spawn.

The Indians speared the sturgeon from small canoes. But the Shawano Dam and another one upstream blocked the Winnebago spawning run to the falls, and with it their annual dance and feast.

Nine years ago the State Department of Natural Resources began presenting the Menominees with 10 Winnebago sturgeon so they could at least have their feast. For several years, the agency has also been restocking nearby Legend and Upper Bass Lakes, hoping to creating a large enough population to permit harvesting on the reservation.

The tribe of 8,700 members is responding with growing enthusiasm. "I heard my folks talk about eating sturgeon when I was a kid, but I never did until a few years ago when the feasts started," said Dewey Thunder Jr., who is 61.

When the staccato crack and thundering of drums and high-pitched singing subsided at the tribe's powwow in the high school gym in Neopit, in the heart of the reservation, David Grignon, director of the Menominee Historic Preservation Office, addressed the crowd: "The sturgeon broke the long winters and replenished our food supply. Today the sturgeon stop at Shawano Dam. When the dam is gone, they will be with us here again."

Chances for a sturgeon revival may be better here than anywhere else in the world. Wisconsin's tight restrictions, beginning in 1903 with an eight-pound limit on speared fish, have produced "the only large, self-sustaining sturgeon population in the world," Mr. Bruch said.

"It is an American treasure," Mr. Binkowski declared. Winnebago is now internationally renowned as a center of sturgeon rehabilitation and research. Last year, the Wisconsin scientists convened a sturgeon symposium at Oshkosh, drawing 430 participants from 30 countries.

Biologists at the University of Ferrara in Italy are using fin tissue from Winnebago to pursue their genetic studies aimed at rehabilitating the severely endangered Adriatic sturgeon (Acipenser naccarii) in the Po River, while experts on the Chesapeake Bay and the Tennessee River are asking about rejuvenating their minuscule populations.

Amid huge green vats containing sturgeon of various ages in his large Milwaukee laboratory, Fred Binkowski tells of his plans with Ronald Bruch to use 1,000 lab-raised yearlings to restock the Upper Fox River, which drains into Winnebago. "We'll surgically implant radio tags in 24 yearlings, he said. "That will open up a whole new base of information on habitat, temperatures and location. If we catch the fish every couple of years, we'll be able to see its evolutionary pattern.

"By doing this," he continued, "we develop a template for Lake Michigan. We are proposing a rehabilitation effort that will stretch from Manitowoc all the way down to the Illinois-Indiana border. If it is accepted, Chicago will play a big role because we have historical data showing that sturgeon once spawned in the shoals right offshore from the city."

Elsewhere on the Great Lakes, biologists of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, Canada's Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Michigan's Department of Natural Resources are jointly studying the age and movement of sturgeon populations. Their efforts are aided by commercial fishermen and recreational divers.

Tracy Hill, of the wildlife service at Alpena, Mich., works with 11 commercial fishermen who have inadvertently caught 302 sturgeon in their nets since 1995 and measured and tagged them for the scientists. One sturgeon originally tagged in Lake Winnebago in 1978 was caught in Lake Huron in 1993, in Lake Erie in 1997, and finally died in 1999 in the harbor of Sandusky, Ohio.

"We are working hand in glove with the Canadians, who have tagged 3,000 sturgeon in Lake Huron," he said, while biologists on the Michigan side of Huron have tagged 1,000 in Lake St. Clair, just above Detroit. Some specialists are working on designs of "staircases" to enable spawning sturgeon to bypass dams.

"But we're looking at 50, 70, possibly 100 years to achieve that," Mr. Hill said. "That is a generation or two in a sturgeon's maximum life span."

Mr. Binkowski concurs. "We may argue, and do, that sturgeon are probably the best aquatic indicator of the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem," he said. "But it is a hard sell because the public can't see instant results of our work and sturgeon rehabilitation could only be enjoyed by the great grandchildren of its benefactors."

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