Bringing back an old fish to a young river: lake sturgeon in the Niagara

A man in an orange jacket holds a huge lake sturgeon with a tag.
Head of a primitive-looking fish

Credit: USFWS

Last week we heard from Bethany Holbrook about successfully stocking lake sturgeon in the St. Lawrence River in New York, part of a collaborative effort between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) to restore lake sturgeon populations.

Fish stocking is one of many tools biologists use to bring back fish populations  This week, Fisheries Biologist and Communication Coordinator Catherine Gatenby highlights how monitoring a naturally reproducing population in the Niagra River can help recover this ancient species.

Lake sturgeon are descendants of one of the oldest families of fishes on the planet!  They first appeared about 100,000 years ago, just as dinosaurs began to disappear.  Once abundant in the Hudson Bay, the St. Lawrence River, the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes basins, including the young Niagara River (“only” 5, 500 – 12,500 years old!), lake sturgeon almost went extinct due to over-fishing and loss of suitable spawning habitat.

A woman in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uniform and an orange life preserver holds a lake sturgeon.

Lake sturgeon have many primitive characteristics, such as armor-like plates, or “scutes”, along their backs and sides. Credit:USFWS

For several years the Service and NYDEC have monitored lake sturgeon and their habitat in the Niagara River, where  promising results suggest that a goal of self-sustaining populations is within reach.

“We are seeing recovery of some wild populations that use the Niagara River. We saw the first measurable runs of reproducing lake sturgeon in the lower Niagara River this past summer than have been seen in a long time”, said Dr. Dimitry Gorsky of the Service’s Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office.  “Indeed, the population in the lower Niagara River is larger than biologists expected, with a large number of younger fish (less than 30 years of age) preparing for reproduction, indicating this population could become self-sustaining if conditions remain suitable.”

A man in an orange jacket holds a huge lake sturgeon with a tag.

Dr. Gorsky, the Service and NYDEC continue to monitor wild lake sturgeon movements and populations using tagged fish. Credit:USFWS

The NYDEC observed a similar aged population suggesting reproduction in the upper Niagara River as well.

This summer, Lower Great Lakes biologists spotted several lake sturgeon in the shallows of the shorelines of the lower Niagara River Gorge during the spawning season, suggesting that spawning might be occurring there, too!

We’ll continue to keep a close watch on these growing wild populations and their habitat to see what conditions are contributing to their success and use this information to promote self-sustaining lake sturgeon populations in the Great Lakes watershed.  These findings give us hope for the recovery of lake sturgeon in the Niagara and other river systems.

Visit the Lower Greats Lake Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office website and Facebook page  and the Service’s Midwest Region’s website for more information on Great Lakes restoration and outreach activities.

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