Restoring dinosaurs of the deep

Sturgeon release highlights improvements in Michigan’s largest river system

The Flint River is playing an important role in efforts to restore the lake sturgeon population in the Great Lakes basin. It’s part of a 21st century effort to revive a prehistoric species of fish that some biologists call dinosaurs of the deep.

Lake sturgeon, which can grow to 8 feet long and weigh 200 pounds, have occupied lakes and rivers in and around the Great Lakes basin for around 130 million years, long before dinosaurs went extinct. Overfishing in the 1800s, followed by the construction of dams that destroyed prime fish spawning habitat, eliminated all but 1 percent of the Great Lakes sturgeon population, according to government estimates.

In recent years, the quirky fish — which has a sleek shape, whisker-like sensory organs on its snout and sharp, bony plates along its body that make it look like a cross between a shark, a catfish and a dinosaur — has become a symbol of improved ecosystem health.

Over the next two decades, fish biologists will release a total of 20,000 sturgeon into four tributaries of Saginaw Bay: The Flint, Cass, Shiawassee and Tittabawassee rivers. Because sturgeon don’t mature and reproduce until they are 20 years old, biologists will have to wait to see if the newly stocked fish develop a self-sustaining population.

“This species of fish has been around since dinosaurs roamed the planet. It’s our responsibility to bring them back,” said Rebecca Fedewa, executive director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition. The Coalition, which is a grantee of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, is assisting with sturgeon stocking in the Flint River.

On Sept. 21, biologists will place 125 tiny sturgeon in the Flint River after giving people at the event an opportunity to briefly hold the fish. The event at Mott Park Recreation Area, which coincides with the opening of a new canoe and kayak launch, is part of a larger effort to restore native fish populations in the Saginaw Bay Watershed, which encompasses the Flint River.

“You can hold a baby sturgeon at this event and say you’ve touched a prehistoric, dinosaur fish. At the same time, there’s a lesson to be learned about conservation and why it’s important to restore and protect our rivers,” said Mike Kelly, director of The Conservation Fund’s Great Lakes office. The Conservation Fund also is a Mott Foundation grantee.

The Conservation Fund is leading an effort to restore the vast network of lakes, rivers and wetlands that comprise the Saginaw Bay watershed, the largest river system in Michigan. The Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network (Saginaw Bay WIN) uses a variety of voluntary measures to reduce pollution, restore natural habitat and encourage sustainable practices. To date, the Mott Foundation has supported the project with $610,000 in grants.

“Protecting and restoring the Saginaw Bay watershed is one of the highest priorities across the entire Great Lakes basin,” said Sam Passmore, director of Mott’s Environment Program. “Since this is our home watershed, we clearly want to help, and the Saginaw Bay WIN project is a great way to do so.”

Native Americans who first settled the Great Lakes basin thousands of years ago revered sturgeon as a part of their culture. The fish were a source of food, leather and oil.

In the early 1800s, commercial anglers of European descent slaughtered sturgeon because the massive fish would get tangled in fishing nets and damage them. In the mid-to-late 1800s, commercial anglers harvested sturgeon because their caviar became a valuable commodity.

That was followed in the late 1800s and early 1900s by the construction of dams that powered sawmills and grain mills and generated electricity. Those dams were often built in areas of rivers with rocky bottoms and swift currents, the kind of places sturgeon prefer to spawn. With their numbers dwindling and fewer places to spawn, Great Lakes sturgeon nearly went the way of the woolly mammoth and passenger pigeon, which are extinct.

“It’s only been the last couple hundred years that sturgeon haven’t done well, and that’s because people treated them as a nuisance, dammed the rivers where they spawned and used those rivers as dumping grounds for pollution,” Kelly said.

Recent improvements in water quality, coupled with the removal of a dozen dams from rivers that feed into Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, have created suitable conditions for restoring the sturgeon population.

The current population of lake sturgeon in the Saginaw River watershed does not reproduce because the numbers of fish are so low. Stocking 1,000 sturgeon in the Saginaw River system each year for 20 years will increase the likelihood of a self-sustaining population taking hold, Kelly said.

Fedewa said improved water quality in the Flint River and the removal of obsolete, dangerous dams has made the river more inviting to people, fish and wildlife. She’s hoping for a big crowd at the upcoming sturgeon release, adding: “It’s really something to hold one of these fish in your hands and have that direct connection to bringing the species back.”

The sturgeon release and dedication of Paddlers’ Landing will begin at 1 p.m. on Sept. 21. Both activities will be held in an area of Mott Park Recreation Area that is behind McLaren Hospital, in Flint; parking will be available off Sunset Drive, near the intersection of Ballenger Highway.

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