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Projects help sturgeon thrive in Great Lakes

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The lake sturgeon can live over 100 years, weigh over 200 pounds and grow up to eight feet long. But it has had a fragile existence in the Great Lakes region.

Lake Erie’s sturgeon population disappeared at the turn of the 20th century due to over-harvesting. Commercial fishermen would use dry sturgeon to fuel their boats or sell the eggs for caviar.

Now the federal government has awarded more than $450,000 to three research projects designed to help the sturgeon, the ancient and iconic fish species native to the region..

Kent Bekker of the Toledo Zoo says it will use the funds to create a facility on the banks of northwest Ohio’s Maumee River to help the fish breed.

“Hopefully we can use Maumee River water to rear eggs and young lake sturgeon for reintroduction into the Maumee River,” said Bekker. The zoo received more than $90,000 in federal funds for the project.

Eggs will come from an area in the Great Lakes basin with a thriving sturgeon population, the St. Clair/Detroit River system in Michigan.

Jessica Sherman, a University of Toledo Ph.D. candidate who studied the Maumee River as a habitat for the sturgeon, says she’s excited for the fish to return.  “Because they’ve been gone, a lot of people don’t know about them.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded the funds under a grant program aimed at restoring fish and wildlife, and their habitats, in the Great Lakes basin.

Two projects from the University of Wisconsin received money, too -- more than $370,000.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Justin Chiotti says one will benefit the Menominee River, which flows into Green Bay and then Lake Michigan.

“There’s a hydroelectric facility on the Menominee River," he says. “They’re actually carrying fish from below the dam and putting them upstream of the dam so the Lake Sturgeon can go up there, where there is sufficient habitat to spawn."

The other University of Wisconsin project involves the St. Louis River.

Chiotti says that if the projects are successful, it’s a good sign for the Great Lakes. “Lake sturgeon are an indicator of ecosystem health."

Federal funding also went to other projects.

Michigan’s St. John’s Marsh and Ohio’s Toussaint Wildlife Area are both in poor shape.  Russ Terry, a regional biologist from Ducks Unlimited, says his organization chose the two spots for rehabilitation because they are extremely valuable to waterfowl, especially in the spring.

Toussaint, a coastal wetland, was owned and managed by a private duck hunting club before the Ohio Division of Wildlife took over.  According to Terry, the club segmented the large wetland into several smaller ones, disconnecting the wetland from the river.  “There’s no opportunity for fish to come into and out of the wetlands,” he says. 

With phase one of the Ducks Unlimited regional project, Terry and Director of Communications Chris Sebastian say the plan is to remove interior levies that stretch for more than a mile of the area.  They’ll also install a “water control structure” to reconnect the wetland area with the Toussaint River.

St. John’s Marsh is a different situation, says Terry.  Phragmite, an invasive plant, has taken over.  Terry says these two wetlands are representative of the Great Lakes region.

“Some places in the Great Lakes have lost 90 percent of their wetlands,” Terry says.

Terry and Sebastian say the total price for the project is more than $3 million.  With $560,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a recent $600,000 from NOAA (for the Ohio project), they’ve made quite a dent – but still have a long way to go.

Click here for more information on the projects.

Reporter/producer Elizabeth Miller joined ideastream after a stint at NPR headquarters in Washington D.C., where she served as an intern on the National Desk, pitching stories about everything from a gentrified Brooklyn deli to an app for lost dogs. Before that, she covered weekend news at WAKR in Akron and interned at WCBE, a Columbus NPR affiliate. Elizabeth grew up in Columbus before moving north to attend Baldwin Wallace, where she graduated with a degree in broadcasting and mass communications.
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