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Ancient fish to swim the Maumee on Saturday

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Maumee-River-sturgeon

The sturgeon that will be released into the Maumee River on Saturday are about six months old and seven inches in length. Adult sturgeon can reach more than 11 feet in length and weigh over 300 pounds.

Chris Vandergoot/USGS Enlarge

It was more than five years ago a group of conservationists and like-minded individuals met in the lower level cocktail lounge of the historic Toledo Yacht Club to discuss one of those pie-in-the-sky kind of ecological moonshots.

They were talking about a dinosaur, a relic, a link to the distant prehistoric era that could trace its lineage into the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods of geologic time, and possibly as far back as the Triassic period. This creature’s ancestors appear in the fossil record some 200 million years ago.

These people had a detailed and broad-ranging conversation about bringing it back to the Maumee River. They were serious and determined.

And on Saturday, sturgeon, the Methuselah of fish, once again will swim the Maumee River in numbers. About 3,000 juvenile sturgeon will be released into the waterway. They have spent the past few months in a streamside rearing trailer that has allowed them to become acclimated to the Maumee, and imprinted with its chemical signature so they will eventually return to the river to spawn.

The release will take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the City of Toledo Boat Launch near Walbridge Park.

“I don’t think any of us would have imagined where we are today with the lake sturgeon restoration efforts currently under way,” said Chris Vandergoot, who was part of the initial sturgeon brainstorm. He is a research fisheries biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Sandusky, and the former Lake Erie Fisheries Sandusky Research Station Administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

Vandergoot cited the strength of the consortium of agencies, entities, and individuals working on the sturgeon restoration project as its avenue toward the best chance for success. The Toledo Zoo & Aquarium, the University of Toledo, Lake Erie Waterkeeper, Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, USGS, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Purdy Fisheries Ltd., University of Windsor, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all took part.

“Our ability to work collaboratively with multiple state, federal, and provincial agencies to get to this point highlights the importance of interagency collaboration,” he said. “Additionally, utilizing the expertise and resources of the Toledo Zoo and the University of Toledo is another important aspect of the progress that has been made to date.”

Lake sturgeon, one of the more than 25 species of sturgeon found across the globe, likely were present in the Maumee from its early days, and it is thought that more than 1 million sturgeon inhabited Lake Erie about 200 years ago.

At one point in their history, lake sturgeon spawned in almost  20 tributaries of Lake Erie. But today, remnant populations spawn in just the Niagara River and the Detroit River network.

These fish, which have dinosaur-like armor plating and a bill-like snout, can live more than 100 years, reaching 300 pounds and more than 11 feet in length. They usually will spend their first few years in a river system, then mature in the open waters of the lake before eventually returning to their native stream to spawn.

Sturgeon in Lake Erie and its tributaries fell victim to unregulated harvest, habitat degradation, pollution, and dams restricting their movement to spawning grounds. In the 1800s, they were sought for their eggs, which were cured and sold as caviar; killed by commercial fishermen as a nuisance since their large and powerful bodies could destroy nets; and even burned as fuel for Great Lakes steamships.

Adding to the complexity of their survival, sturgeon take a long time to reach reproductive capability. Males won’t spawn until 15, then only every one to four years. Female sturgeon don’t spawn until they reach 20 years old, and then just once every four to six years.

“There is a long road ahead, with respect to establishing a self-sustaining population, but I think the project is off to a great start,” Vandergoot said.

The zoo raised about 600 lake sturgeon from eggs collected in U.S. and Canadian waters earlier this year, while about 2,400 additional fish will be brought in from the USFWS National Fish Hatchery in Genoa, Wis.

The fish will be about six months old and about seven inches long when they are released. The zoo received grants from the Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act and the USFWS to build the modular facility on zoo-owned property near the river. The Ohio Division of Wildlife is another source of funding for the ongoing operation of the streamside facility.

“The river is always perceived as the muddy Maumee and not embraced as much as it should be, so maybe having this dinosaur fish swimming around might captivate people,” said Sandy Bihn, executive director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper who provided some of the initial push for the restoration project. “It is thrilling to see this release of young sturgeon come about, and we hope to see this become a community-wide project that changes the general perception of the river.”

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

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