Lake sturgeon program a work in progress at LSSU lab

SAULT STE. MARIE – A unique fisheries lab at Lake Superior State University at the Soo is working to improve the population of one of the world’s oldest freshwater fish, the lake sturgeon.

This lab is noted for having reared and released Atlantic salmon, a fish ranked as one of the top sports fish in the world, into the waters of Michigan. But they also work with other species and the lake sturgeon has become a fish of special concern or the students and staff at this fisheries lab.

The lab, under supervisor Roger Greil, began its sake sturgeon program over a decade ago in working with this ancient fish that has had reproduction and recruitment problems in some waters of the state.

To study sturgeon, you first had to have some sturgeon to study. So the Lab staff and its students went fishing with hook and line.

“We put out 300-feet of set line with 25 hooks on it,” said Roger Greil, who heads the unique program at LSSU. “We baited the hooks with pickled squid and herring. We checked the lines every other day. By the end of the first summer we had caught 40 small sturgeons. We began to monitor their growth and try to see how we might be able to eventually raise them for release. It’s been a learning experience for all of us, students and teachers.”

A major number of DNR workers in the fisheries production unit of the DNR are graduates of this lab under Greil’s leadership and direction, and now account for one of the best state fisheries programs in the country. That leadership has been recognized recently by the American Fisheries Society by awarding Greil its Grayling Award, a special honor in the field of fisheries science.

These small sturgeon (later grow to huge size and weights up over 100 pounds) are unique-looking fish. As a species they are a very ancient fish, around for many millions of years. Adult lake sturgeon have been known to reach sizes as heavy as 200 pounds or more in some Great Lakes waters (but are no match for the beluga sturgeon of Russian waters which have reached sizes up to 2,500 pounds). Their eggs are a source of caviar. That alone has led to over exploitation in many places, so learning how to rear and manage sturgeon has been a new and challenging undertaking for the students and staff at LSSU’s Aquatic Research Lab.

They have not been in a hurry -- the sturgeon isn’t. Being a slow-growing species, sturgeons do not become mature until 12 years of age, and may live on an average of 75 years. So these “babies” of the species will be studied long and hard before they leave this LSSU nursery.

Those first small sturgeon caught in the study have been reared in coldwater tanks, and show good growth, already reaching large sizes requiring moving to larger tanks.

Thank can be given to the generosity of the former Edison-Sault power company (now part of Cloverland Electric Co-op)at the Soo in providing the space and support for this unique Great Lakes laboratory in their power facility buildings on the St. Mary’s River. With the support from the DNR Fisheries Division and the students who man the lab’s projects, Michigan anglers now already enjoy some outstanding fishing for one of the premier game fish in America, the Atlantic salmon which have been raised here by LSSU students and staff and released to the waters of the St. Mary’s River for a number of years. This provides a very rare opportunity for Michigan anglers to experience fishing for this true trout family

Thanks to the work and efforts of this very special sturgeon program, LSSU staff and students hope someday to be able to add releases of sturgeon to the output of this Upper Peninsula lab. Their Atlantic salmon are already putting some zing in your fishing right now.

A special program also is underway here in rearing a larger subspecies of brook trout from Canada noted for exceptional size and feisty vigor on the end of an angler’s line.

Thanks to the efforts now directed to improving the population of an ancient and admirable fish called a lake sturgeon, some future angler may find him or herself with their hands full trying to land a giant fish with an armor-plated hide and give some thanks to the students and staff of LSSU for one of the most thrilling moments a fisherman can have.