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
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
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
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."