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Autumn release eyed for iconic lake sturgeon into Maumee River

Biologists from the Toledo Zoo and a combination of state and federal wildlife agencies remain on schedule for their first release of iconic lake sturgeon into the Maumee River, making Toledo the southernmost and newest point in the Great Lakes region for a long-term restocking program.

About 1,500 young fish expected to be reared inside a streamside trailer in the coming weeks will be released into the wild late this summer or early fall — most likely in August or September, said Kent Bekker, Toledo Zoo conservation director.

The release is expected to be the first of many annually over the next few decades, he said.

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Fish biologists holding a lake sturgeon captured in Southern Lake Huron in 2012. Lake sturgeon are a native fish of the Great Lakes.

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Tanks to raise the fish arrived on zoo property Friday, the same day Mr. Bekker gave an update to about 60 attendees of the Lake Erie Foundation’s annual conference at the W.W. Knight Nature Preserve in Perrysburg.

Eggs to raise hatchlings are obtained from a successful spawning site in the St. Clair River near Port Huron, Mich., in June, he said.

Once raised, the baby lake sturgeon will be injected with special microchips that will allow researchers to track their movements for decades.

Males don’t spawn until they’re 15. Females don’t spawn until age 20 and hold as many as 60 pounds of eggs.

Both sexes only reproduce once every four or five years. But it’s not uncommon for them to live 100 years or more, and they reproduce until they die. One caught in Lake Michigan in the 1950s was believed to be 150 years old.

They typically live several of their first years in a river habitat, then spend several more years of their lives out in the open waters of the Great Lakes before returning to a river to spawn.

The goal of the program that’s been in the works for years is to help people become reconnected with the Maumee River and western Lake Erie through the re-establishment of the species.

“This, for me, is one of the most exciting projects in the western Lake Erie region. I think it will inspire Toledoans to look at the Maumee River differently,” said Sandy Bihn, Lake Erie Foundation executive director and Lake Erie Waterkeeper founder.

The fish are not expected to be affected by the algae that grow in the river or the lake because they are bottom-feeders. Lake Erie’s most notorious alga, microcystis, blooms at the surface and is not evenly distributed through the water column. But planktothrix, an alga predominantly in Sandusky Bay that produces the same toxin, is evenly spread through the water column and doesn’t bloom on the surface.

The zoo has been collaborating on the project with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the University of Toledo, Lake Erie Waterkeeper, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and others.

As a species, lake sturgeon are as old as dinosaurs. With their pug-nosed snouts, armorlike exteriors, and bull-like demeanors, experts have said they have a bit of a comical aura to them that makes them fascinating to humans.

They can grow to 300 pounds and 12 feet long and are strong enough to knock down humans like bowling pins. They are the largest Great Lakes fish.

The Maumee River is to be the seventh Great Lakes tributary and the first in Ohio to have sturgeon raised in captivity next to streams into which they are then released.

Besides their odd-looking snout, they have a retractable mouth that can hang like a hose from the underside of its head, and — with a body armored with rows of thick plates instead of scales — look like freshwater fish ready to do battle.

They also have been on Earth no fewer than 150 million years and coexisted with dinosaurs for at least 85 million of them.

Lake Erie once had 19 tributaries spawning them. Now it has only two: The Detroit River-Lake St. Clair corridor and the Niagara River.

Anywhere from 330,000 to 1.1 million sturgeon were believed to be in Lake Erie alone in the 1800s.

But their numbers plummeted that century because the commercial fishing industry thought of them as a nuisance. The lake sturegeon’s enormous strength and thrashing weight tore apart many fishing nets.

By the early 1900s, lake sturgeon were nearly extinct.

The fish once were so plentiful they were used as fuel for Great Lakes steamships.

In the late 1800s, caviar made from their eggs was sold to Europe, where it was relabeled and sold back to the United States as Russian caviar.

Despite their size and strength, lake sturgeon are sensitive to changes in water quality and hydrology.

With the Industrial Revolution, many more lake sturgeon succumbed to dams built along Great Lakes tributaries.

Their plight has been compared by Native Americans to that of the American buffalo. That’s especially true of the Menominee of northern Wisconsin, one of the few Great Lakes region tribes that was never pushed westward.

Lake sturgeon are one of 27 species of sturgeon worldwide, but one of only three that spend their entire life in fresh water. Most others live at sea, seeking out fresh water to spawn.

Contact Tom Henry at thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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