Tag Archives: fisheries conservation

The Making of a Dinosaur Fish

Imagine spotting a seven-foot long flash of gray armored with five rows of bony plates while you’re enjoying a summer day on the St. Lawrence River. At first, you might believe you saw a “sea monster.” Chances are you really saw a gentle giant that cruises along the bottom of our lakes and rivers sucking up aquatic insects, leeches, and zebra mussels.


Lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) are New York State’s largest freshwater fish that predate the dinosaurs you and I never knew. Once a more common sight, these swimming fossils have unfortunately been one of many populations of fish to take a hit from human activities like overfishing, dam construction, and pollution.

Recognizing the threat of losing this important species from our waterways, the Service, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s Environmental Division have partnered up to bolster lake sturgeon populations. Each year, with the valued support of the New York Power Authority, there is an “egg take” event where the next generation of sturgeon is made.

Making a dinosaur fish is both an art and a science. Here’s how it’s done:

Step 1: Catch the fish

A few strong biologists go out in a boat with gill nets and capture adult lake sturgeon from the South channel of the Moses-Saunders power dam, where fish congregate to spawn each spring. With high water and faster flows than usual, this step in the process was more of a workout for the crew this year. Meanwhile, two staff are on stanby at the New York Power Authority’s dock to inspect the fish and determine whether they’re keepers for the egg take. At least four good adult females are needed in order to maximize the genetic pool of eggs.


Biologists head out to collect adult sturgeon from the St. Lawrence River. Photo: USFWS.

After a tiresome stretch of weeks finding enough viable male and female fish, shuttling them into big blue holding tanks at the Power Dam, and constantly ensuring proper water quality and filtration, it’s time for the magic to happen.

Step 2: Massage the fish


Biologists massage eggs from a female lake sturgeon. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

It’s the day of the egg take. Water splashes as a biologist wrangles a female fish out of the tank. Eggs pour into a stainless steel bowl as another hand massages them from her white belly. A syringe of sperm is injected into water and poured over the eggs. Within 30 seconds to a minute, the eggs are fertilized. Shortly after, the milt mixture (as it’s called) is poured off and fresh water is added to reduce fertilization with multiple sperm.


Mike Morgan (NYSDEC) adds the milt mixture to the eggs. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

Step 3: The hand off

Like the passing of the torch, the eggs make their way down the assembly line from mother to fish-maker. It all happens so quickly and smoothly that you can see the years of experience these biologists have. Eggs are split between the NYSDEC Oneida Fish Hatchery and Wisconsin’s Genoa National Fish Hatchery, which will each raise their own brood of young fish for the fall stocking.


Scott Schlueter and Doug Aloisi (USFWS) dividing eggs. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

Step 4: Chair, feather, and clay

Now things slow down for a bit. The lucky contender will spend the next 30-40 minutes in a chair, rhythmically stirring the eggs, while adding Fuller’s Earth, Iodophor solution, and station water. Sturgeon eggs have an adhesive layer that allows them to stick to rocks and other substrate in the wild. But if they clump together in a jar, that could encourage fungal growth. To prevent that, the simple method of softly stirring the eggs with a turkey feather and clay seems to do the trick. The Iodophor kills any potential bacteria and viruses that may be on the eggs.


Mixing in the Fuller’s Earth. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS

Step 5: Sending the little ones on their way

Once proper de-adhesion and disinfection is achieved, the eggs are then packed up and sent off to their respective fish hatcheries, where they are expected to hatch within a week. Over the next few months, the newly hatched fish are fed a diet of brine shrimp, bloodworms, and krill until they are ready to be stocked in the fall. Of the nearly 130,000 fertilized eggs sent to the hatcheries, the hope is to produce 10,500 fall fingerlings this year.


Fertilized eggs ready to be sent off to the hatchery. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS

Step 6: Saying goodbye to their parents

After making their contribution to the next generation of fish that our grandchildren may get to see, the adult sturgeon are released back into the St. Lawrence from their holding tanks. Since 1993, New York State has been restocked with nearly 105,000 lake sturgeon through this multi-agency effort with supportive funding from the Fish Enhancement, Mitigation, and Research Fund. This is only a small part of a bigger effort to do what we can to save a living fossil.


National Geographic photographer, Jennifer Hayes, films the release of an adult lake sturgeon. Photo: USFWS.

To learn more about this effort, be sure to check out The New York Times and North Country Public Radio articles.

Yield of Streams: If you remove it, they will come

Little feet tread through slushy April snow and approach the railing, peering over the edge of the bridge into the cold, flowing water of the Shawsheen River in eastern Massachusetts.

“I see one!”

They counted them 1,2,3.

The Joshi family children shouted out numbers as silver blue blurs glided through the dark water.

“We counted 95,” recalled Andover resident Jon Honea. He explained that this meant that as many as 425 passed by when volunteers weren’t watching.

They were counting river herring­­ – alewives and blueback herring, two closely related species of migratory fish that hadn’t been seen in the river for nearly two centuries.

And while river herring are no Shoeless Joe Jackson, their homecoming to the Shawsheen points to the success of the recent removal of the Balmoral and Marland Place Dams.

“All you have to do is make space,” said Honea, member of the Andover Conservation Commission and an environmental science professor at Emerson College.

Tracking the herring’s return to the Shawsheen River was a community affair, drawing over 250 volunteers. Residents from the Atria assisted living facility – whose residence was threatened by increased flood risk from the dam – joined the fun, alongside Andover high school students and dedicated families like the Joshi family, who counted multiple times every week.

“The removal of these two dams not only increases the resiliency of the Town of Andover, but reconnects the community to the river by restoring lost recreational opportunities and natural ecological processes upon which we all rely,” explained Bill Bennett, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.

Not only were these dams a public safety hazard – heightening flood risk and threatening paddlers – they also blocked the travels of migratory fish throughout the river.

Dams prevent rivers from flowing naturally, impairing water quality and interrupting natural stream processes that both people and wildlife populations rely on.

Partners and volunteers have already documented a steady reappearance of river herring in the Shawsheen, but other wildlife such as American shad and American eel are also expected to arrive.

These removals opened up 4.1 miles of the river and restored 16 acres of wildlife habitat, allowing these fish to reach spawning grounds that are critical for their survival.

Though these smaller fish aren’t coveted by anglers, they are eaten by other wildlife such as larger game fish – like striped bass – shorebirds, raptors and river otters.

Snapping turtles and great blue heron have also been observed enjoying the free-flowing state of the lower Shawsheen River, below the remaining Ballardvale Dam.

Jane Cairns of the Andover Historical Society explained the rich history of the Shawsheen River, mentioning that the Marland Place Dam supported mill operations in the town, even powering a site that at one point supplied gunpowder to George Washington’s Continental Army.

She, like Honea, is also a member of the Shawsheen Greenway, an organization focused on making the Shawsheen River corridor a vital recreational, cultural, transportation, and educational resource for the entire community and region.

“We’ve been reminded, as many other communities have before us, that a clean and healthy, free-flowing river is a significant asset for the town, and can provide a boost to both our recreational and business resources,” Cairns said.

Nick Wildman, a restoration specialist from the Massachusetts Department Fish & Game, has been involved with these removals since 2009. He called the projects a “public investment for public benefit,” adding that the dam removals along the Shawsheen River represent a resurgence of the place that rivers have in our lives.

It doesn’t end there. Though public safety and stewardship of the river and fisheries were paramount to community leaders, fewer dams are a home run for experienced paddlers, who no longer have to transport their boats around the dams on land.

“The newly opened stretches of the river are quite beautiful and exciting,” Honea said. “There are long stretches with just forest on either side and several newly accessible drops, including a couple very exciting rapids.”

“These projects are not possible without strong partnerships between the federal, state, and local communities,” Bennett said.

Some of these partners embarked on a celebratory paddling trip in May to explore the newly free-flowing Shawsheen River.

Three canoes set out on the river. Eric Hutchins of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Bill Bennett of the Service in one, Nick Nelson of Interfluve – a national firm focused on river restoration – and his son in another, and Andover’s Conservation Commissioners, Jon Honea and Floyd Greenwood, in the third boat.

While paddling, Hutchins and Nelson noticed a gizzard shad also exploring the newly restored river.

“Rivers are the lifeblood of our nation and their stewardship is of the utmost importance,” Bennett said.

The town sees it the same way.

“The Town of Andover is very excited about the removal of the dams – many people see this as the start of a real renaissance of the Shawsheen,” said Bob Douglas, conservation director for the Town of Andover. “Our residents are looking forward to being able to paddle the unbridled Shawsheen from the Ballardvale mill district, through the center of town, all the way to the mighty Merrimack.”

“Trap and Trucking” salmon – restoring a historic native fish

Bill and Nick are fisheries biologists working to restore Atlantic salmon to their native habitats in the Lake Champlain Basin. Photo credit: USFWS

Bill and Nick are fisheries biologists working to restore Atlantic salmon to their native habitats in the Lake Champlain Basin. Photo credit: USFWS


Today we hear from Bill Ardren and Nick Staats, fisheries biologists who work out of our Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in Vermont. This past year marked a milestone in their efforts to restore landlocked Atlantic salmon to parts of their historic range in the Lake Champlain and its tributaries, as they saw strong spawning runs of fish returning to the Winooski River.


A juvenile "pre-smolt" Atlantic salmon.  Populations of landlocked Atlantic salmon are making a comeback in their native Lake Champlain. Photo credit: E. Peter Steenstra/USFWS

A juvenile “pre-smolt” Atlantic salmon.
Populations of landlocked Atlantic salmon are making a comeback in their native Lake Champlain. Photo credit: E. Peter Steenstra/USFWS

Vermont anglers have been waiting nearly 100 years for a chance to catch “the big one” – salmon that is! And it’s all thanks to the coordinated efforts of state, federal and non -government agencies working to restore landlocked Atlantic salmon to its historical habitat in the Winooski River and beyond.

Natural populations of landlocked Atlantic salmon disappeared from Lake Champlain nearly 100 years ago. The combination of dams blocking access to habitat, over-fishing and pollution was too great for this native species of fish to survive.


These Atlantic salmon are getting the lift they need to become re-established in their native waters of the Lake Champlain basin.

But now, efforts to restore river-run populations of landlocked Atlantic salmon in Lake Champlain have seen a “lift” with the resumption of the trap and truck program at the first dam in the Winooski River.

This successful fish passage program, done in cooperation with Burlington Electric and Green Mountain Power, provides landlocked salmon with access to more than 20 miles of spawning and nursery habitat in the upper river and its tributaries. This past fall we trapped 158 salmon, the second highest return to the dam since we began monitoring them in 1993.

Adopt-a-Salmon Stocking 002

The “Adopt-a-Salmon” program helps restore fish populations to their native habitats. In this photo, students involved in the program release salmon fry that they hatched in their classroom from eggs.

These restoration efforts also provide new opportunities for recreational salmon fishing in an accessible setting near one of Vermont’s most populated areas.  In addition, the fish lift at the Winooski One Hydropower Plant is open to the public for viewing and provides information on the restoration program happening in their community.

Landlocked salmon photo for blog

Winooski One station operator Jon Clark holds a 32 inch, 14 pound male landlocked Atlantic salmon lifted during the 2014 fall salmon run. The current Vermont state record for an angled caught landlocked salmon is 12 pounds, 10 ounces. Photo credit: Nicholas Staats, USFWS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in partnership with Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife and New York Department of Environmental Conservation, has been working to restore Atlantic salmon to Lake Champlain since 1972.  This is another successful step in the ongoing salmon restoration program that involves our national fish hatchery program, sea lamprey control, fish passage, habitat restoration, and science based monitoring and evaluation.

Learn about efforts to restore landlocked Atlantic salmon in the Lake Champlain basin of Vermont and New York: