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With Caviar, Clay, and Turkey Feathers, Saving Lake Sturgeon From Extinction


And now the plight of the sturgeon. They are the prehistoric giants of America's lakes and rivers. Sturgeon have been around since the dinosaurs. They can grow up to 7 feet long, and they can live as long as humans or even longer. But overfishing and pollution have pushed the fish to the brink of extinction. Biologists are trying to restore the population back to health with an unlikely set of tools - caviar, some clay and some turkey feathers. North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein explains.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN, BYLINE: Once a year, sturgeon experts head to the Saint Lawrence River in way northern New York State. They catch 100 mature sturgeon for what they call an egg take. The moment I arrive, four burly guys in hip waders are wrestling an 80-pound fish out of a tank. One guy rubs the fishes belly and eggs spurt out. They look like lentils as they stream into a metal bowl.

ROGER KLINDT: OK, good. Sample.

SOMMERSTEIN: Another guy fills a test tube to sample later. Someone else pours sturgeon sperm on to the eggs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Quick dip - activate.

KLINDT: Twenty mls, just pour it in.


KLINDT: Right in.

SOMMERSTEIN: The bowl's passed to yet another guy sitting in the shade. He adds in a powdered clay called Fuller's Earth and starts to stir.

You're stirring eggs with a feather.

KLINDT: With a feather.

SOMMERSTEIN: What kind of feather is that?

KLINDT: That's a turkey feather, nothing fancy. Feather's, you know, very soft, delicate, won't damage the eggs as they're being stirred.

SOMMERSTEIN: The stirring prevents sticking, explains Roger Klindt. He's an aquatic biologist with New York's Department of Environmental Conservation. He taps a stopwatch.

KLINDT: Thirty seconds, Dave.

SOMMERSTEIN: Everything has to go just right for these eggs to grow into fingerlings. Klindt says they've learned this delicate process through trial and error since sturgeon stocking began in the 1990s.

KLINDT: The sturgeon are more complicated than most other species that are cultured.

SOMMERSTEIN: The biggest problem is the fish have a longer life cycle than humans. A female sturgeon doesn't even mature until it's 20 years old, says Klindt. And then, it only produces eggs every few years.

KLINDT: So when you deplete the population, it takes a long time to rebuild those generations. So what we're doing here is we're trying to jumpstart areas that have sturgeon.

SOMMERSTEIN: Things are getting better for sturgeon. They're protected from overfishing in 20 states now. Their water is cleaner. But worldwide, they still face serious pressures.

JENNIFER HAYES: Price for pound, this fish, the sturgeon group, is the most valuable fish on the planet.

SOMMERSTEIN: Sturgeon caviar is a prized delicacy, says Jennifer Hayes, a photographer for National Geographic. She leans over and snaps shots of the sleek gray fish in the tank. At more than 5 feet, they're almost as long as she is tall. There are bans on fishing sturgeon in Central Europe. But an illegal trade still thrives.

KLINDT: We're good. Let's see what happens.

SOMMERSTEIN: The eggs gathered here will go to hatcheries in New York and Wisconsin to grow through the summer. There are signs this egg take is working. Biologists recently found the healthiest population of young sturgeon in decades in a nearby river. They may be the offspring of sturgeon stocked 15 to 20 years ago. Scott Schlueter is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

SCOTT SCHLUETER: These fish, you know, they've been around since the dinosaurs. And in one human lifespan of 100 years, we've almost wiped all sturgeon off the globe.

SOMMERSTEIN: Schlueter says when he looks at these eggs fertilized here on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River today, he imagines them growing into sleek adults still slicing through the water when his grandchildren have children of their own. For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in northern New York.


David Sommerstein, a contributor from North Country Public Radio (NCPR), has covered the St. Lawrence Valley, Thousand Islands, Watertown, Fort Drum and Tug Hill regions since 2000. Sommerstein has reported extensively on agriculture in New York State, Fort Drum’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lives of undocumented Latino immigrants on area dairy farms. He’s won numerous national and regional awards for his reporting from the Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Association, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. He's regularly featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Only a Game, and PRI’s The World.