NEWBURG, Wis. – Gliding gently around their tanks in a trailer near the banks of the Milwaukee River, some 1,100 young sturgeon await the day when they’ll swim free in the waters of Lake Michigan.
Lake sturgeon hatched from eggs collected on the Wolf River were raised at a streamside rearing facility operated by Riveredge and DNR so they imprint on the waters of the Milwaukee River.
Photo Credit: DNR
The fish, hatched from eggs collected by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on the Wolf River, have been growing steadily at the streamside rearing facility operated by Riveredge Nature Center and DNR. After receiving tiny tags that will help fisheries biologists track their growth and movement if recaptured, the young sturgeon will be ready for release at the 11th annual Sturgeon Fest, set for Oct. 1 at Lakeshore State Park near the Milwaukee Summerfest grounds.
The free, family oriented event runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and features the opportunity for participants to sponsor and hand release one of the young sturgeon into the Milwaukee Harbor. Beyond the excitement of the fish, food and fun, the event provides the chance for participants to be part of a 25 year project to restore a naturally reproducing population of lake sturgeon to their native range.
“As we count down the years on this effort, we are gathering evidence that conditions in southern Lake Michigan are suitable for the fish to survive and grow,” said Jessica Jens, executive director of Riveredge Nature Center. “In partnership with DNR, the Fund for Lake Michigan and other supporters, we are grateful for the involvement of volunteers and support from citizens who are helping us achieve this shared vision.”
Juvenile sturgeon assessments conducted by DNR each summer provide reason for optimism. From 2013 to 2015, crews in southern Lake Michigan captured a total of 31 sturgeon from all sources. The fish ranged in size from 15.4 inches to 34.6 inches, with an average length of 20.3 inches.
This summer, an additional 13 fish were captured. Brad Eggold, DNR Great Lakes fisheries supervisor, said that most of the fish being captured are coming from the Milwaukee River lake sturgeon streamside rearing facility but fisheries staff members also are finding lake sturgeon stocked by other facilities on Lake Michigan. In addition, fish originating from the Milwaukee streamside rearing facility have been picked up elsewhere, including some in Michigan waters.
“Young sturgeon are capable of swimming great distances – just last week one of our Milwaukee fish released in 2012 was picked up near Escanaba, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But as they reach maturity, they are likely to return to the waters in which they were raised to spawn,” Eggold said. “The streamside rearing facility at Riveredge uses water piped from the Milwaukee River, which should help guide the fish back to the Milwaukee River in the years ahead. Since the streamside trailer began operations in 2006, we’ve released more than 13,800 sturgeon.”
Video Credit: DNR
For the males, the return could be as soon as four to five years given current growth rates; the females may be ready in nine to 14 years. Meanwhile, work continues to make sure there is suitable spawning habitat in the Milwaukee River whenever the fish are ready. A driving force in this effort has been the Fund for Lake Michigan, which has partnered with DNR and in recent years provided nearly $190,000 for sturgeon rearing and habitat restoration efforts.
“These amazing creatures are an indicator of the health of Lake Michigan,” said Vicki Elkin, executive director of the Fund for Lake Michigan. “When children release young sturgeon, they feel the joy of possibility in their hands. Our hope is that years and decades in the future, these fish return to Milwaukee as huge, armored beauties, reminding people that humans can help support nature and that ecosystems are remarkably resilient.”
Healthy populations of lake sturgeon were found in southern Lake Michigan as recently as the late 1800s; habitat loss and over-harvest decimated the population.
Families and individuals interested in sponsoring a sturgeon for Sturgeon Fest are encouraged to register online before noon Friday, September 30, although it will still be possible to sign up at the event. The sturgeon are typically released between noon and 2 p.m. following a short presentation and a blessing of the fish by a Native American representative.
To learn more about efforts to restore lake sturgeon in southern Lake Michigan, visit dnr.wi.gov and search for “Lake Michigan lake sturgeon.” For more about the festival, visit the Riveredge Nature Center website and the new Sturgeon Fest website. [both links exit DNR]