Air Date: Week of March 19, 1999
Wendy Nelson reports that the age-old sport of spearing sturgeon in the Great Lakes may be nearing an end - for good. The numbers of the unique fish are so low that states are severely restricting the annual catch; and if the species doesn't recover quickly, wildlife officials say they'll ban the sport altogether.
CURWOOD: Spear fishing for sturgeon is an old tradition in the icy waters of the Great Lakes. By this time of year the season is over, and if the numbers of this ancient species do not improve, the hunt may be over for good. Wisconsin shut down its season after only 3 days this year, and Michigan is considering its own set of restrictions. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson has our report.
NELSON: Each winter thousands of ice anglers flock to Black Lake. They come to this remote site in northern Michigan because it's one of the few places left where they can practice the age-old sport of sturgeon spearing.
(A motor runs)
NELSON: It's not exactly what you'd call action-packed.
RUSSELL: I'm basically just watching for the sturgeon.
NELSON: Like his fellow anglers, Jim Russell has shelled out about $50 a day to rent a 4 by 10-foot hole in the ice surrounded by a heated shanty. He also gets a long, heavy spear and a chair on which to sit and wait.
RUSSELL: You wait and you wait and you wait, and you don't see anything, and when you finally see it, it's just an incredible experience. It's basically like when you're deer hunting in the woods, and the excitement you get when you see deer, when you see that big buck.
NELSON: But sturgeon aren't anywhere near as plentiful as deer, and it's not unusual for anglers to come to Black Lake year after year and not even see a sturgeon, let alone spear one. Still, they come because sturgeon are unlike any other fish you'll find around here. They're ancient bottom feeders that look like sharks. They can grow to 7 feet and can weigh up to 200 pounds. And they can live 100 years or more. There was a time when schools of sturgeon swam thick in the region's rivers and inland lakes, but commercial fishermen considered them a nuisance. Todd Grischke is a fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
GRISCHKE: Sturgeon were these big, obnoxious things that got tangled up in their nets, ruined their nets, and they discarded them on shore or on board or speared them and left them to die. That's where the bulk of the damage was done.
NELSON: Habitat loss compounded the problem. Rivers were dammed to generate electricity, and logging and other industry further degraded the sturgeon spawning grounds. Today lake sturgeon are considered threatened or endangered in many of the Great Lakes states. In Michigan, Department of Natural Resources officials say there are only about 10,000 sturgeon left, down from about a million they believe inhabited the state in the 1850s. Tom Coon is an associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University. He likes to compare sturgeon fishing today to managing a bank account. We've stopped harvesting the interest, he says, and are digging into the principal.
COON: Usually when you see an increase in the size of fish caught, it's an indication that there are no small fish coming into the population and growing up to the larger sizes. So all we're doing is harvesting off the older, larger fish, the key reproducers, and if we take them away then we have no means of generating new fish down the road.
NELSON: Starting next year, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources will impose new restrictions on sturgeon spearing. The plan practically eliminates the sport in Michigan. Black Lake will be the only place where spearing will be allowed. But the season will be cut in half, the total harvest limited to 5 fish. And only 25 anglers a day, picked by lottery, will be allowed to spear. State wildlife officials hope the new rules will be enough to rehabilitate the sturgeon population while still maintaining some spearing. But fisheries biologist Todd Grischke admits no one really knows if the plan will work, because sturgeon are so different from all the other fish the Agency manages.
GRISCHKE: Most fish species, their life span is certainly within our lifetimes. Sturgeon live to be very old. They can live up to 100 years old or more, and they do not mature until 30 or 40 years old. So, we cannot expect to see results in 5 or 10 years. This is going to be something that's going to take many, many years to see the results of.
NELSON: Grischke adds there will be ongoing monitoring of sturgeon populations in the state. And if their numbers continue to decline, sturgeon spearing in Michigan will be terminated. For Living on Earth, I'm Wendy Nelson in Cheboygan, Michigan.
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