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Hundreds cheer as sturgeon return to Maumee River

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    Jennifer Brown, of Temperance, Michigan, left, with her children Caleb, 4, Ethan, 9, and Noah, 7, release sturgeon into the Maumee River.

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    Hundreds of people attend the release of young lake sturgeon into the Maumee RIver in Toledo. The effort is part of a conservation program by the Toledo Zoo, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and other organizations.

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    Jeff Sailer, CEO/president of the Toledo Zoo and Aquarium

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    Ken Bekker, director of Conservation Research at the Toledo Zoo.

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    Lucas County Commissioner Carol Contrada speaking at the event.

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    Toledo City Council president Matt Cherry.

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    Mike Miller, Chief of the Division of Wildlife for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

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The lake sturgeon, with their rows of bony plates protruding from their sleek rubbery coating, swam alone in small buckets of fresh water, each of them isolated.

Unbeknownst to them, they were about to be introduced to a whole new world.

One by one on Saturday, people tilted a bucket containing one of the fish over the dock at the city of Toledo boat launch near Wallbridge Park — releasing the fish into the Maumee River. No sooner did their small bodies hit the water, the sturgeon vanished into the murk below.

Hundreds of attendees applauded, celebrating the reintroduction of lake sturgeon into the Maumee River — a homecoming that many believed was long overdue.

Throughout the day officials expected about 3,000 juvenile sturgeons to be released into the water. The excitement was palpable, as people came out in droves to learn about this prehistoric fish that populated Lake Erie in large numbers during the 19th century.

“Welcome to the real Jurassic Park,” Lucas County Commissioner Carol Contrada said. “… We’re here to celebrate the reintroduction of a living but threatened ancient species to Lake Erie.

“To me, this is even more exciting than a fictionalized version of our intense interest in the fabulous creatures that once dominated planet Earth. While the dinosaurs’ mass extinction was a cataclysmic environmental event, the near extinction of the lake sturgeon has been a man-made event,” she said.

Several factors contributed to the demise of lake sturgeon, including commercial overexploitation, habitat loss and degradation, and the damming of tributaries restricting their access to suitable spawning grounds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The state of Ohio classifies lake sturgeon as an endangered species, and, if caught, one must be returned to the water immediately.

Sandy Bihn, executive director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper who provided the initial push for this project, said she hopes Saturday’s event enriches people’s appreciation of the Maumee River.

“The Maumee River in Toledo isn’t much appreciated a lot of the time,” she said. “The purpose in doing this for a lot of us was to have the public realize the value of the river in reintroducing sturgeon and native fish. We hope people understand the greatness and productivity of this river.”

The goal is to re-establish the Maumee River as a spawning site for lake sturgeon. The Great Lakes region’s biggest fish can live more than 100 years and can grow up to 11 feet long and weigh up to 300 pounds.

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. Jessica Collier, who received her doctorate in ecology from the University of Toledo, was largely responsible for discovering that the Maumee River was an inhabitable place for the sturgeon.

“We don’t want to put fish back in the river if the river can’t sustain them,” she said.

She surveyed the river to ensure there was an ecosystem to support the younger fish and a reproductive habitat for the adult fish.

“I looked at certain characteristics of the river and if they matched what sturgeon need to survive.”

Hundreds of people stood in line waiting for a chance to release a sturgeon into the river. Patrick Harte of Perrysburg said he and his wife came to the event specifically so their three children could release a fish into the water.

“This one is obsessed with fishing,” Mr. Harte said pointing to his 8-year-old son.

As Mr. Harte’s three children walked towards the dock preparing to empty their buckets and release a sturgeon, they started discussing names for their fish.

“Marvel.”

“Bubba.”

His 5-year-old ultimately decided to name his fish “Lucky.”

Then the time came.

He walked on the dock,  took a knee, tilted his bucket, and set Lucky free.

“Bye, bye Lucky,” he said, offering a gentle wave as he sent his fish off to its new life in the Maumee. 

Contact Javonte Anderson at janderson@theblade.com419-724-6065, or on Twitter @JavonteA.

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