Using streamside rearing to put more lake sturgeon in Michigan water

Lake sturgeon have a long and storied history in Michigan, with their populations declining dramatically since the 1800s due to habitat loss and degradation and overfishing. Since that time the DNR - in partnership with several entities who have great passion for lake sturgeon - have been working to rehabilitate populations in waterbodies throughout the state.

One critical effort used for this rehabilitation work has been streamside rearing facilities which use local river water to allow young sturgeon to "imprint", increasing the chances they'll return to the target river as mature adults. These facilities have allowed thousands of sturgeon to be stocked across Michigan.

Upper Peninsula
In Michigan's Upper Peninsula there are two streamside rearing facilities; one on the Cedar River and one on the Whitefish River. These facilities have been in place for more than a decade and have been financially supported by the Fox River Green Bay Natural Resources Trustee Fund Council and state wildlife grants. John Bauman, a biologist with the DNR's Northern Lake Michigan Management Unit, helps to support their work.

The Menominee River and the Peshtigo River (in Wisconsin) are the primary gamete source for this facility. In 2018, the Cedar River facility (the Whitefish River location wasn't in operation this past year), produced 183 fish.

"The initial intent was to operate these facilities for a minimum of 20 years," he said. "These facilities are really critical to future success - for instance, just this past year was the first year one of the fish reared at a streamside facility on the Manistee in 2006 actually returned back to spawn for the first time."

Northern Lower Peninsula
A facility on the Black River in Cheboygan County was originally developed on a temporary basis to determine its feasibility, but in the early 2000s a permanent facility was built that is managed cooperatively with Michigan State University and Tower-Kleber Limited Partnership.

World-class research is conducted there, analyzing different factors that affect sturgeon populations from adults down to eggs and larval fish. Education and outreach is another important function the facility helps provide, with the Black Lake Chapter of Sturgeon For Tomorrow playing a major role.

This facility's gamete source is the Black River, for both eggs and larval drift. Initial capacity was for around 4,000 fish but survival of stocked lake sturgeon has been so good, fewer fish need to be stocked annually. In 2018, more than 500 fish were stocked into the Upper Black River.

"With lower stocking rates needed for the Black system we're able to stock some other waterbodies in the area with the fish reared here; including Black and Mullet lakes, and Burt Lake (through cooperation with the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians), and occasionally Otsego Lake," said Dave Borgeson, the DNR's Northern Lake Huron Unit Manager. "We're even now sending some fish downstate to help with other rehabilitation efforts."

Genesee, Saginaw & Midland Counties
Thanks to a surplus of fish being available from the Black River streamside rearing facility, and additional fish courtesy of the Genoa National Fish Hatchery in Wisconsin, the Cass, Flint, Shiawassee and Tittabawassee rivers all received lake sturgeon in 2018.

In total, 1,903 juvenile lake sturgeon entered those rivers to hopefully bring back a historical population to the Saginaw River system.

"The Saginaw River system has been identified for a long time as historically where lake sturgeon were abundant," explained the DNR's Southern Lake Huron Unit Manager Jim Baker. "Folks are so excited about this opportunity and we invited the public to be part of the stocking process."

Baker indicates they hope to conduct annual stockings for about 20 years to build up enough of a population that they start to return and spawn in the system.

Southern Lower Peninsula
A streamside rearing facility on the Kalamazoo River has been in operation for several years, formerly managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service with support from the DNR and the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish band of Pottawatomi Indians (Gun Lake Tribe). It is now primarily supervised by the Gun Lake Tribe with seasonal support from the DNR.

This past year 35 fish reared there were stocked into the Kalamazoo River.

"Thirty-five fish is average for this river," said Matt Diana, a DNR fisheries biologist for the Southern Lake Michigan Management Unit. "There are some issues here that other systems don't have; including turbidity, difficulty collecting larval fish, a limited number of spawning adults in the population, and warmer water."

Despite these issues natural resources managers recognize this as a population that needs to be supported and maintained.

"The genetics of this system are quite different so we feel like this population has some diversity that makes it a priority to maintain," Diana said. "The adult population has been estimated at just a few hundred fish, so while 30 fish stocked doesn't sound like a lot, on a long-term basis those numbers could have a significant impact."

The lake sturgeon is on the Threatened Species list in Michigan and these rearing and stocking efforts are critical to restoring the state's population. It takes the work of many partners to secure funding and resources to make restoration possible. These partners include: the DNR, Black Lake chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow, Kalamazoo River chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish band of Pottawatomi Indians, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Michigan State University, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service.