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Published: Saturday, 10/23/2010

Can lake sturgeon surge toward new beginning?

This is a fish tale you gotta love.

Sixteen lake sturgeon were released into the Detroit River on Friday afternoon by 175 students from southeastern Michigan schools as 1) two Washington lawmakers with more than 86 years of experience between them watched, along with 2) 75 other adults, 3) a member of Canada's Parliament, and 4) enough other local, state, and federal officials to form a colony with a gross national product rivaling that of Rhode Island.

They all converged on Meijer-Ellias Park in Trenton, Mich., near Detroit, for the sight of a strangely beautiful fish that — rugged as it appears — is also one of nature's most vulnerable to pollution.

The dignitaries included U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D., Dearborn), U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), Canada Parliamentarian Jeffrey Watson, and other government servants.

Obviously, these are some mighty important fish.

But why?

Lake sturgeon are pug-nosed, muscle-bound fish with leathery skin.

They are capable of growing 8 feet long, weighing more than 300 pounds, and living to be nearly 200 years old. They have the torpedo-like strength to topple grown men like bowling pins.

Oh, and did I mention the retractable mouth that can hang like a hose from the underside of its head, and a body armored with rows of thick plates instead of scales that make it look battle-ready?

Gorgeous Georges, no. But they're a beautiful story all the same, a fish that symbolizes hope and recovery.

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

They're one of 27 species of sturgeon worldwide but one of only three that spends its entire life in fresh water. Most others live at sea, seeking out fresh water to spawn.

Lake sturgeon are making a slow-but-steady comeback after nearly going extinct in the early 1900s as a result of pollution and over-harvesting.

That's an understatement. They were fished so heavily that some Great Lakes steamships burned them as fuel.

Native Americans hunted them for thousands of years, but their numbers didn't dwindle until European settlers arrived. Sturgeon eggs were made into caviar. As the market for caviar grew in Russia, the population of sexually active adult sturgeon dropped.

Lake sturgeon also had trouble sustaining their numbers as the Industrial Revolution led to dams being constructed along almost every Great Lakes tributary that the fish had used to spawn.

Today's lake sturgeon population is only 1 percent of that which the Great Lakes region had in the late 1800s. They are listed as threatened in Michigan and Ontario and endangered in Ohio.

In 2008, lake sturgeon spawned for the first time in 30 years in the Detroit River. The site, at the head of Fighting Island, near Wyandotte, Mich., involved a reef built as part of a joint U.S.-Canadian effort.

The Menominee of northern Wisconsin, one of the few Great Lakes tribes that was never pushed westward, have drawn parallels between the plight of lake sturgeon and that of the American buffalo.

To John Hartig, Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge manager, ugly-but-adorable lake sturgeon are a poster boy for what can come from money invested in restoration.

“It validates all of the hard work we've done,” Mr. Hartig said. “Like anything, you've got to show results.”

The fact there's hope and recovery for the much-maligned Detroit River says something.

“We've treated this river so poorly. If we can bring this river back, that really brings back hope for other rivers,” Mr. Hartig said. “It's important to share this story throughout the Great Lakes basin.”

Amen to that.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.



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