Tag Archives: lake sturgeon

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Heavy machinery at hogansburg dam

Removing Hogansburg dam = Restoring nature and culture in Upstate NY

Check out the rapid changes to the St. Regis River even after just removing the west side of Hogansburg Hydroelectric Dam. Photo courtesy of Tony David

Check out the rapid changes to the St. Regis River even after just removing the west side of Hogansburg Hydroelectric Dam. More like a river, less like a lake! Photo courtesy of Tony David.

Justin Dalaba

Today you’re hearing from Justin Dalaba, our new outreach coordinator for the New York Field Office. He graduated this summer from St. Lawrence University with a bachelor of science in conservation biology. Welcome Justin!

Near the mouth of the St. Regis River in Franklin County, New York, are the final remnants of the Hogansburg Hydroelectric Dam.

The 330-foot-long dam blocked migrating fish and hindered a way of life for over 85 years. The dam neighbors the Saint Regis Mohawk reservation, also known as Akwesasne, and is part of the Tribe’s decades old boundary claim. Talk among stakeholders about decommissioning the Hogansburg Hydroelectric Project, owned by Brookfield Renewable Energy, began in the early stages of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, aka FERC, relicensing nearly five years ago.

Here’s what you should know:

    1. Hogansburg is the first hydroelectric dam in New York State to be fully removed. Plus, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe is the first Tribe in the U.S. to remove a FERC-licensed hydroelectric dam!
      Hogansburg Dam has been the site for various mills and dams since 1762, with the initial construction of the Hogansburg Hydroelectric Dam we know today in 1929. The project underwent a thorough review in 2015, when FERC needed to begin the project’s relicensing process. For Brookfield, relicensing would mean costly mechanical and environmental work. Our agency, along with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Trout Unlimited, and Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, offered an alternative—decommission the dam in disrepair. The Tribe took the lead, ultimately returning project lands to the Mohawk people. FERC issued a decommissioning order in June 2016, followed two months later by removal that is now near completion.
    2. The removal of Hogansburg Dam has reconnected nearly 275 miles of main stem and tributary habitat for migratory fish. Removing Hogansburg Dam, the first dam on the St. Regis River, will re-establish the river’s direct connection to the St. Lawrence River. For nearly a century, the dam has blocked this important stream habitat to fish migrating from the St. Lawrence River within the St. Regis watershed. The key fish that will benefit from removal of the dam include the American eel (Anguilla rostrata), lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens), Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), and walleye (Sander vitreus).

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      Juvenile lake sturgeon, one of the species expected to benefit from the dam removal.
      Credit: Justin Dalaba, USFWS

    3. Removing Hogansburg Dam restores historic territory that has shaped the Mohawk peoples’ way of life.
      The Mohawk people of Akwesasne have a deeply rooted history in a subsistence lifestyle including hunting and fishing along the expansive network of rivers connecting the St. Lawrence River to the Adirondacks. This was changed when early settlers reshaped the network of tributaries for natural resource and hydroelectric power exploitation.With funding from a variety of private and federal sources, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe was able to have a direct hand in the Hogansburg Dam removal and studying pre and post removal conditions. Decommissioning of the Hogansburg Project means the repatriation of land to the Tribe surrounding the river. Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe will continue working with other stakeholders to study changes following the dam removal.

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      Let the heavy machinery have at it! Photo courtesy of Tony David.

    4. This removed dam does not mean lost power.
      The poorly functioning Hogansburg Dam provided a miniscule amount of the power supplied for New York (if you want to be exact, 0.00058%). While the project could power 74 households per year in total, it was in need of significant resources to run, repair and upgrade the facility. In comparison, the much larger Moses-Saunders Power Dam on the St. Lawrence River matches Hogansburg’s annual power output roughly every 30 minutes. The Moses-Saunders Power Dam produces more than enough electricity to light a city the size of Washington, D.C.!
    5. The removal of Hogansburg Dam is a stepping-stone toward future conservation.
      While removing this dam does not restore the entire landscape, it is an important starting point toward meeting migratory fish restoration goals and restoring land for the Tribe. This is an opportunity for scientists, including our agency and the U.S. Geological Survey, to work with the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe to monitor the success of the dam removal and future habitat enhancement.
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Stephen Patch, senior fish & wildlife biologist at the New York Field Office, stands among the final remnants of the Hogansburg Dam. Steve has been an integral part of the dam removal. Credit: Anne Secord, USFWS.

Secrets of the Lower Great Lakes: The search for lake sturgeon

Catherine Gatenby

Catherine Gatenby is a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Lake sturgeon nearly disappeared from the Great Lakes 100 years ago. Discovering the secrets of their biology to help recover the species is a group effort. Today, Catherine Gatenby takes us on a journey to the Niagara River, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario with fish biologists who are diving deep into sturgeon waters to find answers we need for helping this ancient species of fish.

Out on Lake Erie in search of lake sturgeon. Photo credit: USFWS

Out on Lake Erie in search of lake sturgeon. Photo credit: USFWS

While the quest for lost treasure chests of information about lake sturgeon might not be considered fodder for an Indiana Jones movie, the discoveries may be more valuable than gold to fish biologists. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office and Northeast Fishery Center along with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the U. S. Geological Services and Shedd Aquarium are working together to recover lake sturgeon.

Their pursuit to uncover the secrets of this ancient fish doesn’t include excursions into dark caverns or midnight camel rides across the desert. However, it does involve dives into the blue waters of the Niagara River and breathtaking adventures on the expansive Great Lakes.  It takes a dedicated team of scientists, engineers, boat captains and barge operators to restore lake sturgeon and its habitat

Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office and the Northeast Fishery Center lake sturgeon restoration crew out on Lake Ontario. Photo credit: USFWS

Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office and Northeast Fishery Center lake sturgeon restoration crew out on Lake Ontario. Photo credit: USFWS

Far less is known about the lake sturgeon in lakes Erie and Ontario than in the other Great Lakes. Questions we ask ourselves as we embark on this adventure include: How many sturgeon live here? Where do lake sturgeon spend their lives? Where is the best habitat for spawning and feeding? What do they eat? How many adults are reproducing? And the ultimate question we aim to answer is: How long before we can consider the population healthy and self-sustaining in the Great Lakes? 

“We collect valuable information by tagging wild fish. We learn about their movement, diets, hormone levels and genetic diversity to help us answer these questions,” says Dr. Dimitry Gorsky, of the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. 

Fish biologists with the Northeast Fishery Center and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, IL implant a tag that will transmit valuable information on migratory behaviors of lake sturgeon. Photo credit: USFWS

Fish biologists with the Northeast Fishery Center and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois, implant a tag that will transmit valuable information on migratory behaviors of lake sturgeon. Photo credit: Shedd Aquarium

Biologists are observing an increase in lake sturgeon numbers in many remnant populations across the Great Lakes. “Over the past four years, we have captured and uniquely marked over 600 individual fish. We used to catch between 15 to 20 fish per year just 10 years ago,” reports Dr. Gorsky, “but we are steadily capturing more lake sturgeon, more than 100 fish each year. This summer, we have already captured nearly 200 fish and are on our way to a record year.”  

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Northeast Fishery Center biologist releases a wild lake sturgeon after collecting vital information that will help evaluate overall health of the population. Photo credit: USFWS

The age distribution of lake sturgeon are eerily similar among different populations as those observed in the lower Great Lakes; most are less than 25 years old, suggesting that this ongoing recovery is in response to large-scale actions that took place many years ago. The first of which may be the Clean Water Act of 1972, which set the table for preventing and removing pollution from our waters. Also in the 1970s, some U.S. states along with the Province of Ontario, Canada, enacted fishing closures on lake sturgeon to protect what fish were remaining, according to Gorsky.

Figure 1. Age distribution of lake sturgeon - oldest fish born in 1967 (1)

For species that delay reproduction, such as the the lake sturgeon which doesn’t reproduce until at least 10 to 15 years of age, it would naturally take decades to see an increase in population growth, assuming the causes for the decline have been abated,” says Dr. John Sweka of the Northeast Fishery Center. 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fisheries biologists study the gentle and ancient lake sturgeon to help with it’s recovery. Photo credit: USFWS

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fisheries biologists study the gentle and ancient lake sturgeon to help with its recovery. Photo credit: USFWS

The combination of setting harvest limits and improvements in water and habitat quality is creating a favorable environment for lake sturgeon recovery. “It’s amazing that actions begun so long ago continue to be linked to improvements in our Great Lakes,” remarked Dr. Gorsky. “Perhaps the greatest secret lake sturgeon may have revealed to us is that recovery takes time.” 

Lake sturgeon in the Niagara River below Niagara Falls. Photo credit: USFWS

Lake sturgeon in the Niagara River. Photo credit: USFWS

Read more about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s high-tech tracking of lake sturgeon in the Buffalo Harbor, NY.

Read more about the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office and the Northeast Fishery Center