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Huge endangered sturgeon washes up near Lake Erie, will be examined by state, federal biologists

Sunday, September 17, 2000

By Deborah Weisberg, Tri-State Sports & News Service

One of Lake Erie's oldest and rarest fish -- the patriarch of the Great Lakes -- washed ashore near 20 Mile Creek in North East, Pa., last Saturday.

The 73 1/2-inch, 80-pound sturgeon -- discovered by a beach walker -- is in the freezer at the Walnut Creek Access Area, and will be dissected this week by veteran Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission biologist Roger Kenyon and US Fish and Wildlife Services representative Chris Lowie from Buffalo, who is working on a US-Canada effort to rehabilitate sturgeon in the Great Lakes.

Kenyon is especially interested in knowing how old the sturgeon is, something he can determine through bone-testing. While 70 years is the average life span for Lake Erie sturgeon, they have been known to live to 120.

"Even snapping turtles don't get that old," Kenyon said. "Steelhead live to be about five, walleye max out at 15 or 20, perch 10 to 13, suckers 15 to 20, and muskie about 30."

"Age is always important with a long-lived animal like this, because it can help us predict the kind of spawning population we can expect 20 years down the road," Kenyon said.

He also will examine the sturgeon's reproductive organs and its stomach contents to learn more about diet, and will check for parasites and abnormalities.

The largest, and one of the more obscure, of Lake Erie's roughly 120 native species, the sturgeon is a bottom-feeder that cruises rocky shoals, sucking in big quantities of food through protruding lips on the bottom of its head.

Lake Sturgeon

Scientific name: Acipenser fulvescens.
Habitat: In Pennsylvania, only in Lake Erie around clean sand, gravel or rocky bottoms.
Adult weight: Can vary from 60 pounds to more than 200 pounds.
Adult body length: About 7 feet.
Spawning period: Early May to late June.
Young per year: 700,000 eggs.
Life expectancy: Some might reach 80 years old. Lake sturgeon don't start spawning until about 20 years old.
Foods: Snails, mollusks, crayfish and larvae.
Status: Endangered species.

Source: Pa. Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources


"They're like vacuum cleaners," Kenyon said. "Sturgeon are not predacious, so they won't chase down fish, especially big fish, but they'll eat anything they can find in invertebrate material, like crayfish and crustaceans, worms found in sediment, and algae. And they need to eat a lot of it. They're very well adapted to what they do and can find what they need in large amounts."

Lake Erie waters are pretty new to the sturgeon, whose ancestors date back about 150 million years, Kenyon said.

"The lake as we know it today was formed 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, so they've had 100 million years to play with," he said. "They've evolved slowly but successfully, and they haven't changed their forms and habits. They look like their fossil records."

The brownish-green sturgeon has retained the large-surface stomach of its forebears, which enables it to efficiently digest huge quantities of food, and rows of bony plates from its gills to its tail, reminiscent of ancient, armored fish.

Evidence shows that native Americans living thousands of years ago ate sturgeon meat and used its thick, tough skin as fabric, Kenyon said. Until the 1970s, when it was put on the endangered species list, the sturgeon was a sport fish. Catching one now can result in up to a $5,000 fine and/or 90 days in jail.

"You'd see guys spearing them through the ice," said Kenyon, "I've seen them jump out of the water, when they're spawning. They look like porpoises."

About every 10 years, "a behemoth washes up on shore," Kenyon said.

The sturgeon found last Saturday, probably already dead when it was moved aground by strong winds, showed no signs of trauma.

A 74-inch, 120-pound sturgeon washed ashore in Erie in 1991, and is on display at the Walnut Access Area.

Kenyon thinks that, despite their endangered status, sturgeon are more common than even many biologists believe. "People have probably caught them trolling, but the line will break and they won't know what they've had. And guys fishing for catfish have been known to catch them, and think they're large carp.

"An experienced fisherman usually knows what he's caught, though."

There are about 36 species of sturgeon, including the exotic breed from the Russian and Caspian Seas, whose roe is prized -- and expensive. All are members of the acipenseritae family, Kenyon said, including Erie's lake sturgeon.

Lake sturgeon can grow to be 8 feet long, though their development is slow, with females beginning to spawn at about 20, and males becoming sexually mature at 15. Spawning occurs in seven-year cycles, since it can take that long for females to regenerate ovaries, Kenyon said. They spawn from April to June, going up big rivers such as the Niagara, Maumee and Detroit. They're broadcast spawners, not nest-builders, and they don't protect their eggs.

Years ago, Kenyon saw a sturgeon in Walnut Creek, though it didn't stay long.

Sometimes they travel in pods of five or six, but more often, alone.

"They're quite mobile and move fast. The animal found last weekend could have come from Lake Huron," Kenyon said, raising questions about whether the sturgeon in the freezer is an authentic Lake Erie native.

Biologists have been working with DNA for years to try to define the Lake Erie strain, but it's a long process, said Kenyon, who acknowledges the possibility, although remote, of sturgeon hatcheries and a lake-stocking program.

Sturgeon probably will never go the way of the blue pike -- a native species extinct since the 1960s -- but always will be far less common than other fish indigenous to the lake, including yellow perch, smallmouth bass, white bass, burbot, freshwater drum, muskie, northern pike, long-nosed gar and walleye.

While walleye are abundant, a recent drop in numbers has a consortium of experts from all of the Great Lakes looking at long-term rehabilitative measures to stop the decline, which could include stricter limits two or three years from now, Kenyon said.

"Walleye are much more easily managed," he said. "We're jumping on them now so we can maintain sport fish levels."

Sturgeon and walleye are so different in their life histories they really can't be compared, Kenyon said, but the consequences of exploiting one species through over-fishing and habitat destruction provide lessons for the future.

"By the time we realized that sturgeon habitats were being destroyed, it was too late," Kenyon said. "We can rehabilitate to the extent that the sturgeon won't be lost, but there will never be great numbers."

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