Get ready for a new type of party Oct. 6: The first-ever release of captive-born lake sturgeon into the Maumee River.
From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. that day, officials from several agencies will host a public open house and release celebration at the city of Toledo Boat Launch along Broadway Street near Walbridge Park.
Many who attend will be allowed to release the iconic fish themselves. Donors of an adoption program being set up will be able to monitor lifetime movements of individual sturgeon.
In all, 3,000 juvenile sturgeon will be released into the Maumee River, 600 of which have been raised from eggs inside a modified trailer set up in the parking lot of the Toledo Zoo’s administration building on Broadway north of the release site. The other 2,400 have been raised inside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Genoa National Fish Hatchery in Genoa, Wis.
The trailer was gutted and made into what’s known as a streamside rearing facility. The zoo opened it up to The Blade for a sneak peek last week. The young fish are recognizable as sturgeon, yet still as small as aquarium fish, or about the size of a human thumb — but not for long. They can grow to 300 pounds and have the strength to knock down grown men like bowling pins.
The baby lake sturgeon are swimming in big, open-air tubs filled with water pumped in from the Maumee River.
They are fed a steady diet of chopped blood worms four times a day. When they were younger, they ate brine shrimp, said Kent Bekker, the zoo’s conservation and research director.
Kent Bekker, Director of Conservation and Research at the Toledo Zoo, discusses the zoo's new initiative to help repopulate the Great Lakes with endangered Lake Sturgeon while standing near tanks where the young fish are living Wednesday at the Toledo Zoo.
“They’re eating at an unprecedented rate,” Mr. Bekker said.
Justin Chiotti, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist involved with sturgeon-recovery efforts across the Great Lakes, said the captive babies soon should be growing at a rate of almost an inch a week, based on what he’s seen at other streamside rearing facilities.
“As soon as they start eating those blood worms, they really take off,” Mr. Chiotti said.
The fish are expected be 6 to 7 inches long for the release. Biologists want them to be at least 5 inches long to have microchips successfully implanted into them, he said.
Plans are being made so donors who “adopt” individual sturgeons can have the same movement data scientists get transmitted to them throughout the individual lives of each sturgeon, Mr. Chiotti said.
The Oct. 6 release will be the first of many that are expected to be done annually for at least 10 years and quite possibly 20 or more years. The goal is to re-establish the Maumee River as a spawning site for lake sturgeon — a large, pug-nosed species that’s older than dinosaurs.
The baby lake sturgeon grew from eggs delivered to the zoo and the fish hatchery in June, after being captured from females near Port Huron, Mich.
Streamside rearing of lake sturgeon has been done in six other parts of the Great Lakes region; Toledo is the seventh and southernmost location. It’s also the first rearing effort of lake sturgeon in Ohio, and the first for the Maumee River, which years ago supported thousands of lake sturgeon and has been deemed as suitable habitat for a recovery effort.
Biologist Katie Herzog feeds blood worms to young Lake Sturgeon inside a newly built trailer designed to raise the fish Wednesday located near the Toledo Zoo administration building in Toledo.
One of the goals is to check for differences in how baby lake sturgeon adapt to the Maumee River, based on whether they were raised inside the zoo’s streamside facility or at the hatchery.
The conventional belief is they had to be raised in a streamside facility. But given the costs of those, officials want to know if those raised at the hatchery do just as well, Mr. Bekker said.
Besides the Toledo Zoo and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, the University of Toledo, and Lake Erie Waterkeeper are involved. Much of the federal funding has come from the Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act.
Mr. Chiotti has said officials believe the project will inspire more people to protect the Maumee River.
John Hartig, retired manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge who now serves as Great Lakes science policy director of the International Association for Great Lakes Research, has often said lake sturgeon have almost a comic-like quality to them and are show-stoppers with kids.
Lake sturgeon typically live their first several years in a river, then spend several more years in the open waters of the Great Lakes before returning to a river to spawn.
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 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.
Lake sturgeon have been on Earth no fewer than 150 million years and coexisted with dinosaurs for at least 85 million years.
They are the largest Great Lakes fish.
Exceptionally old ones have grown to 12 feet long. But even at less than half that length — 70 inches, which is two inches shy of 6 feet long — most sturgeon are about 74 years old, records show.
Biologist Katie Herzog feeds blood worms to young Lake Sturgeon inside a newly built trailer designed to raise the fish.
Lake Erie once had 19 tributaries spawning them. Now it has only two: the Detroit River-Lake St. Clair corridor and the Niagara River.
As many as 1.1 million sturgeon were believed to be in Lake Erie during the 1800s, so plentiful they were used as fuel for Great Lakes steamships back then. Caviar made from their eggs was sold to Europe, where it was relabeled and sold back to the United States as Russian caviar.
Lake sturgeon numbers plummeted because of financial losses incurred by the commercial fishing industry. When the sturgeon got trapped in fishing nets, they used their strength and their thrashing, bull-like demeanor to tear them up.
By the early 1900s, lake sturgeon were nearly extinct.
Despite their size and strength, the fish are sensitive to changes in water quality and hydrology. Many succumbed to dams built along Great Lakes tributaries during the Industrial Revolution.
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 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.
“For all intents and purposes, this is a species that should be here,” Mr. Bekker said.
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