The lake sturgeon has been around since the age of the dinosaurs. They did the one thing dinosaurs couldn’t do: They adapted, and they survived.
But, leave it to mankind push one of nature’s oldest creatures to the verge of extinction.
Count Kathy Johnson among those who are trying to bring the lake sturgeon back from near extinction through research and education of the public.
For more than 30 years, Kathy Johnson, along with her partner, Greg Lashbrook, have worked with scuba certification classes, on search & rescue operations, for commercial hardhat companies and assisted researchers across the Great Lakes basin. Their work with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Departments of Natural Resources and Fishes & Oceans Canada, among other organizations, has established them as Great Lakes marine life experts.
For the last several years, the pair has focused much of its efforts on saving the lake sturgeon, which is currently classified as an endangered species. Their efforts began after they received a call from the Department of Natural Resources fisheries office in Harrison Township, MI., to ask if they would like to be involved in the project. The DNR had located where the lake sturgeon were spawning, but they needed someone, i.e. scuba divers, to get into the water and find fertilized eggs.
“We didn’t even know what a sturgeon egg looked like,” Johnson said. “So we said, ‘Great, we’re willing, but what are we looking for?’ ”
That initial study was followed by a grant, which allowed researchers to mount a camera in the water for a month to document spawning activity.
What is now known is that the Algonac area of the St. Clair River has the largest area of free range sturgeon population in the Great Lakes basin. Other areas, such as Black Lake, located in the northeast portion of the Lower Peninsula, are land locked and the sturgeon there are unable to move freely through the basin.
Sturgeons are most vulnerable in the spring when they spawn in shallow rivers and tributaries and can literally be hand-plucked out of the water and stripped of their caviar. The young sturgeon are then subject to predators for about six months, or the fall season, when they swim away from their nesting grounds. Adult sturgeon can grow to 6-8 feet long, weigh 200 pounds and live for 100 years. After travelling for thousands of miles, they return to the exact location they were born every 3-4 years to spawn.
Lake sturgeon are also a valuable barometer on the health of a watershed because they are what is called a “keystone” species. They are given that title because they are the largest animal in the water column yet they are bottom feeders and feed on the smallest organisms in the water column. Thus, the existence of a healthy keystone species like the lake sturgeon in a particular watershed means the entire watershed is healthy.
Johnson said scuba divers can assist in the recovery of the lake sturgeon by working with researchers who need volunteers trained to dive. Divers and other volunteers can also protect the riverbanks during spawning season to prevent poaching.
In 2011, Kathy and Greg released a new full length documentary titled “Manistee Nmé, a Lake Sturgeon Success Story,” about the relationship between the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee, MI and the lake sturgeon. The DVD explores not only the spiritual bond between the people and the sturgeon, but also how researchers were able study the lake sturgeon in the area while also being sensitive to the needs of the Indian tribe.
The video is available, for free, by going to www.lrboi-nsn.gov/nrd or www.GregoryAD.com In addition, here is the website for the St. Clair-Detroit River chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow: www.stclairsturgeon.org/page-index.html
Here is my video interview with Kathy Johnson on efforts to saving the lake sturgeon and how divers can help in the effort.