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Sturgeon deserve continued assistance

A sturgeon swam into the Boardman River in Traverse City last week. That doesn’t happen every day. The last time the Record-Eagle reported such a sighting was May 2019.

We hope people get a chance to see more of the gentle giant in the Boardman and in other Michigan waters. The big fish is a spectacular example of long-term survival.

Sometimes referred to as a living dinosaur, traces of the sturgeon’s ancestors have been found in fossil records more than 200 million years old. Once common in the Great Lakes, their population declined catastrophically in the 1800s under pressure from overharvesting and human encroachment on habitat.

Sturgeon are more susceptible to overfishing than most fish because individuals don’t begin breeding until they’re about 15 years old — and then they spawn infrequently, just once every two to seven years. Around the world, several sturgeon species have been overharvested to extinction, and 85 percent of the surviving species are threatened or endangered.

A Michigan Department of Natural Resources crew last week caught, tagged and released a sturgeon that weighed 210 pounds and measured 6 feet, 10 inches long. The workers estimated that it was at least a century old. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the largest sturgeon on record weighed 310 pounds, and that one landed in 1952 was said to be 152 years old.

The fish spotted last week in the Boardman was smaller and younger — but still quite a sight. The sturgeon is a part of Michigan’s natural history, one that deserves help to remain a living part of the ecosystem.

It is reassuring that despite more than a century of massive manmade changes to the Great Lakes, sturgeon still swim around our pleasant peninsula. Biologists have been working for decades to help the sturgeon population recover.

The Black Lake and Upper Black River watershed near Onaway is the only place in Michigan sturgeon can legally be speared by the public. The one-day event ends each winter when six fish have been taken, though a seventh fish may legally be speared in the moments before officials announce the sixth fish. The 2021 sturgeon season lasted just over two hours on February 6. Only seven of the registered 570 spearfishers were successful. Tribal nations are allowed each year to spear seven additional sturgeon.

The rest of the year, volunteers guard against poachers in Black Lake and Black River, particularly during the spring spawning season. More information about the volunteer program is available at www.sturgeonfortomorrow.org, guarding@sturgeonfortomorrow.org or (989) 763-7568.

Sturgeon populations are affected by many factors. Multiple adult sturgeon carcasses washed up on shore in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in summer 2020. The deteriorated condition of the carcasses prevented determination of cause of the death, but biologists suspected avian botulism, which is becoming more common as average water temperatures rise.

With all the invasive species — alewife, salmon, sea lamprey, round goby, zebra mussel, New Zealand mud snail and more — living in the Great Lakes, it is reassuring to see native species like the sturgeon hanging on.

The Great Lakes never will return to the natural state it was in before canals, dams, locks, sewage treatment systems and concentrated human populations appeared on their shores. There are just too many people using the lakes in too many ways, too many invasive species, too many irreversible changes.

But we hope that efforts to protect and nurture the slow-growing sturgeon will have continued success. Perhaps our children someday will be able to gaze in wonder at huge sturgeon swimming in the Boardman — more often than once every two years.

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