STURGEON: AN ANCIENT FISH WITH A NEW LEASE ON LIFE

Lake Sturgeon have been around a long, long time.  They were swimming in ancient seas while dinosaurs walked the earth.  They are tough, crafty and have survived everything that 150 million years can thrown at them — until the 1860s when humans decided their eggs were a prestigious snack.

I recently listened to  Kathleen Schmitt Kline (a former science writer at the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute) at Wednesday Nite @ Lab as she talked about People of the Sturgeon: Wisconsin’s Love Affair with and Ancient Fish, a book she co-authored with Ron Bruch (Natural Resources Region Team Supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) and Fred Binkowski (a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin Great Lakes WATER Institute .

Check out a sample page here.

Many species of sturgeon once teamed in both salt and fresh water.  They swam up the Mississippi in great numbers and settled this area as melting glaciers formed the Great Lakes.

Pictured here @ Agawa Rock is a Lake Sturgeon, the King of Fish to the Ojibwe people. (photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/eskimo_jo/2744518571/

Sturgeons can live more than 100 years, weigh more than 200 pounds and measure 7 feet.

Commercial fishermen considered the sturgeons a nuisance.  They stacked sturgeon like cord wood and left them to rot along the shoreline.

Then fish processors realized sturgeon eggs could feed a voracious appetite for caviar. The poor fish were better off when people thought they were a nuisance.  They became the focus of a booming caviar industry that flourished in the Great Lakes region for all of 10 to 15 years.

When the sturgeons were gone, entrepreneurs went elsewhere.

This book tells about people around Lake Winnebago (Wisconsin’s biggest lake) who formed Sturgeons for Tomorrow to restore the sturgeons.  They worked together to get protective legislation and develop a successful method of propagating little sturgeon babies in fish hatcheries.

Today these little fish are released with metal clip on their fins, and some of them even have passive integrated transponders or PIT tags (the same kind people have injected into their pets).

A PIT tag.

When sturgeons are caught, they can be scanned, creating a huge data base about where they go.  Some have radio transponders that can be tracked by air all year long.

Sturgeon are still fished, but in a very controlled manner that has helped increase rather than decimate their numbers.  People who get one of the few sturgeon permits fish from little, windowless huts on the ice.  They cut a hole through to the water and lay by it, peering in, waiting to spear a sturgeon.  They fish with a big forked implement that looks like Neptune’s trident.  They are reminiscent of the kind that Native Americans used, are locally made and cost around $200.

Sturgeon fishers are dedicated.  Some people try for 15 years and never get a sturgeon.  If you take your eyes away from that hole for one second, the only fish of your lifetime could go by.

If you get “lucky,” you can have powerful fish on the end of your spear that weighs more than you do which you now have to wrestle out of the hole and into a truck.

According to Schmitt Kline, sturgeon tastes buttery, not fishy and smokes into something very pleasing.  You and I will probably never know because the only way to find out is to spear one.  You can’t order it in a restaurant.  It’s illegal to take your catch out of the state.

That’s fine with me.

I don’t eat meat – and yes, that includes fish.  (Why do people keep asking me that?)

I’m just glad that we haven’t yet managed to push this peaceful fish off the planet.

Henry Quinlan with Lake Sturgeon. It's nice to see these "fossil fish" getting a helping hand. (photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsmidwest/4815182097/

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