Stocking lake sturgeon in New York
Did you know lake sturgeon can grow up to 7 feet long, weigh 300 pounds and live to 100 years old?
This prehistoric species has been around for tens of millions of years, yet within the past century, sturgeon populations have dwindled to near extinction. You may wonder how such a large fish, with such a long life span, couldn’t survive in its native waters?
Lakes and rivers should be crowded with sturgeon, right?
Lake sturgeon were almost completely eradicated from New York waters by 1970 as a result of overfishing, pollution, invasive species and the disruption of spawning areas from the construction of dams.
Sturgeon populations have, however, made a dramatic recovery, thanks to the collaboration of federal, state and private conservation organizations in managing fish stocking efforts. Since 1993, more than 65,000 juvenile lake sturgeon have been raised in fish hatcheries and released in lakes and rivers across the state. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has led this sturgeon restoration program, with help and funding from our agency.
The Region 6 DEC office in Watertown manages the sturgeon egg collection. Adult sturgeon are captured with gillnets below the St. Lawrence Power Project in Massena, N.Y., near the end of May and beginning of June. Biologists inject the fish with hormones that will promote the release of eggs and milt (fluid containing sperm from males).
Adult fish are safely returned to the river, and the fertilized eggs are sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Genoa National Fish Hatchery in Wisconsin, where they will hatch and mature for three to four months before stocking in the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries. Some of the fertilized eggs are sent to the Oneida Fish Cultural Station in New York to hatch and mature before stocking during the end of September or mid-October.
If only restoring ancient sturgeon populations were as easy as releasing thousands of juveniles into local waterways every year. It’s surely a start, but the difficulty lies in the physiological nature of the fish. Lake sturgeon mature very slowly—so slow that it will take another 20 years before the juveniles reach sexual maturity.
Additionally, females will not breed if they are stressed, Lisa Holt, a rare fish biologist for the DEC, explained. This can be costly for the sturgeon population, especially because females will only spawn once every four years or so. If water conditions are not “just right,” female sturgeon will reabsorb their eggs, Lisa added.
These conditions make sturgeon restoration very difficult, but lately, very exciting. In 2013, the first documented wild offspring from a stocked lake sturgeon was documented in the Oswegatchie River, and is likely to become common in other stocked water bodies throughout New York. Since the initial stocking, fingerling survivorship has exceeded expectations as research biologists and fisherman have been reporting more sightings each year.
Stay tuned for pictures from this year’s sturgeon stocking throughout New York State, or visit our Facebook page!