History of Lake Sturgeon in Michigan

Lake sturgeon are one of Michigan's most historic fish species. Read on for a history of Great Lakes lake sturgeon populations.

Up to European settlement
Prior to European settlement, lake sturgeon were abundant throughout the Great Lakes. Native American tribes depended on the species as a vital spring food source after the long winters. Although killed for subsistence, lake sturgeon were an integral part of the culture of Native people, who utilized every piece of each fish killed. Early European settlers also used the species but didn't have the same historical, cultural connection towards this resource.

Early commercial fishermen (prior to 1850) perceived lake sturgeon as a nuisance because they destroyed fishing gear that was set to target other species. This led to their widespread slaughter. As the economic importance of this species was later recognized, a targeted commercial fishery was intensified by the mid to late 1800s. During the heavy fishing years from 1879 to 1900, the commercial catch of lake sturgeon in the Great Lakes averaged more than 1,814 metric tons (four million pounds). In 1885, a maximum of 4,901 metric tons (8.6 million pounds) were harvested, of which 2,359 tons (5.2 million pounds) came from Lake Erie.

From the early 1900s to the 1970s, very little is known about lake sturgeon populations, except for their continued decline. For example, by the late 1900s, 80 percent of the lake sturgeon population was removed from Lake Erie. Commercial harvest was reported until 1977, but at very low numbers after 1956. In the late 1970s, Canadian commercial operations in Lake Erie reported harvests of 1.36 to 2.27 metric tons (3,000 to 5,000 pounds); significantly lower than the previous century.

In Lake Michigan, commercial harvest was closed in 1929 after the catch declined to only 2,000 pounds, compared to 3.8 million pounds harvested back in 1879.

Factors affecting the decline in lake sturgeon populations included commercial over-exploitation, followed by habitat loss and degradation. Also, their unique reproductive cycle further complicated matters and contributed to their rapid decline.

Habitat loss is sure to have been a contributing factor to the demise of lake sturgeon. For example, in all of the Great Lakes, damming of tributaries prevented access to historical spawning grounds, destruction of spawning areas occurred via siltation from deforestation, agriculture and dredging, and pollution from nutrient and contaminant loads further hindered reproductive efforts.

Only a remnant population of lake sturgeon remains in most Great Lakes areas today. Lake sturgeon are recognized by the American Fisheries Society as threatened in North America and are listed as Endangered, Threatened or Special Concern in 19 of 20 states throughout its range.

Interest in the restoration of lake sturgeon has increased greatly in recent years. The fish can serve as an indicator of ecosystem health and biodiversity, particularly because of its unique life history characteristics.

Partnerships have developed throughout the Great Lakes basin between natural resource agencies and commercial fishers, anglers, recreationalists, landowners and water users to report lake sturgeon sightings to their respective management agencies. Some partnerships allow temporary possession so valuable information can be collected from specimens.

Commercial fishing of lake sturgeon is currently prohibited in Michigan and sport fishing is closely regulated. There are many specific regulations for recreational fishing for lake sturgeon in Michigan. Please read Table 2 in the annual Michigan Fishing Guide for complete details, including seasons, size limits, creel limits and gear restrictions.

Lake sturgeon throughout the Great Lakes appear to be on a rebound. Recent sightings and scientific research indicate expanding age-class structure within current populations. This is a positive sign that natural reproduction is occurring, particularly with the number of juvenile sightings. Although populations are believed to be increasing, they are still impaired in relation to historical abundance.

This information comes courtesy of the DNR, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Michigan Sea Grant and Sturgeon For Tomorrow.