Commentary

History prompts a call to bring sturgeon back to Maumee River

9/8/2013
BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR
Matt Markey.
Matt Markey.

The sturgeon, a prehistoric looking fish that traces its ancestors back to the Triassic period, was probably present in the Maumee River back in the earliest days of the waterway. But no longer.

An extensive study conducted on the Maumee River by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about five years ago failed to turn up a single sturgeon. A collection of local conservationists intends to change that, and see the sturgeon back in its native habitat.

“We want to be a supporting group. We want to help make this happen,” said Sandy Bihn, executive director of the Lake Erie Waterkeeper organization who is shepherding the sturgeon restoration project.

The historic range of the sturgeon includes the Maumee, much of the Great Lakes basin drainage, as well as the Hudson Bay and Mississippi River systems. In demand for their meat and eggs, sturgeon were harvested at a rate of about 4 million pounds a year on the Great Lakes in the last two decades of the 19th century.

But the sturgeon population dropped significantly after that, because of the loss of habitat, overfishing, the construction of dams in their spawning waters, and unrestricted harvesting. During the last 100 years, their decline continued, and sturgeon disappeared from much of their historical range, including the Maumee River.

“Overexploitation around the turn of the [20th] century is probably what got them,” said Chris Vandergoot, a biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Sandusky fisheries unit.

Sturgeon is the general term used to refer to some 25 species of the fish found throughout the world. Here, they are the longest-living, slowest-maturing, and largest fish found on the North American continent.

Often referred to as living fossils, sturgeon have no scales and are covered in bony plates reminiscent of ancient dinosaurs. Sturgeon require lots of space and are found in large lakes and river systems.

The sturgeon native to the Maumee River are lake sturgeon, which are still found in very small numbers in Lake Erie, and very rarely a rogue fish turns up in one of its tributaries.

Vandergoot said that every year the Sandusky fisheries unit receives about 15 confirmed reports of sturgeon caught by anglers in Lake Erie, with most of those coming from around the reef structures while the anglers pursued walleye or perch.

Lake sturgeon can reach in excess of 8 feet in length and weigh more than 300 pounds. A cousin, the Atlantic sturgeon, grows to 14 feet long and 800 pounds.

Male lake sturgeon can live 50 years or more, while the females can reach 150 years of age or more. A 6½-long sturgeon examined in Canada in 1953 was determined to be 152 years old. Sturgeon longevity might have made it more difficult for biologists to be alerted to their decline.

“The population drop the lake sturgeon experienced likely happened in the early 1900s,” Vandergoot said, “but it wasn’t noticed until 40 or 50 years later, because they live so long.”

In its most recent study of the fish species in the Maumee River, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency recorded 69 species of fish in the river, including such unusual entities as the stonecat madtom, the northern hog sucker, and the trout-perch, but no sturgeon.

In its study, the USFWS continually baited and rebaited setlines in the river in an attempt to locate a sturgeon, but the frozen round goby baits caught 100 percent catfish. The study also employed gillnets, but those were filled with primarily common carp and drum (sheepshead).

Despite those fruitless searches, Bihn said establishing that the lake sturgeon had a strong historical presence in the river will not be difficult. “There is absolutely no doubt that they were there,” Bihn said. “We are confident they were here in huge numbers. People still tell stories about it.”

There appears to be plenty of evidence to support her contention that sturgeon were once prevalent in the Maumee River, which has the largest watershed in the Great Lakes.

A story in the April, 1926, edition of The Toledo News-Bee recalled an account from 1840 of a steamship that was delayed near the mouth of the Maumee River by “a school of fish so thick as to stop the action of the paddle wheels.” The same story also referenced accounts of sturgeon being “piled up on the banks like cordwood and burned” in the days before their roe (caviar) was in such high demand. The story also referred to sturgeon as “a rather rare fish now.”

A 1962 story in The Blade by outdoors editor Lou Klewer mentioned that “the sturgeon have been gone a long time.”

In 1975, Klewer wrote about accounts from another era mentioning sturgeon pushing up the river and fouling the nets of fishermen with their sharp scutes, or plates. He wrote that “farmers hauled them away by the wagonloads to use as fertilizer.”

In a 1950 story in The Blade, Klewer wrote of a period in this region’s history when sturgeon weighing more than 150 pounds came from the Maumee River, and in abundance. In the 1950 piece, Klewer quoted then 82-year-old Wilbur P. Hoobler, who had fished the Maumee for 70 years, about Hoobler’s talk of 150 pound sturgeon from the Maumee River being sold for 50 cents each.

“That history is a key, because establishing precedent and showing they have a history there is very important,” Vandergoot said of the detailed process of reintroducing a species to the river.

He is urging patience, however, because this ancient fish does things on its own timetable. Male sturgeon don’t reach reproductive maturity until they are about 15 years old, while the females need 20 or more years before they are able to spawn. Then males will spawn only every one to four years, while females spawn just once every four to six years.

“People taking interest and ownership in this resource is great,” Vandergoot said. “That’s what we need. We’re stretched thin, so we sometimes rely on nongovernment groups like this to help out. But the problem in this case is, it could be 15 years before you see anything spawning. We’ll have to be very patient.”

Bihn said the project is in motion, but she wants to see a more widespread effort to continually upgrade the Maumee.

“What we really need to do is work on changing people’s perception of the Maumee River,” she said. “We’ll never be able to bring it back to what it was, but we can take these little steps.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.