Can a fish return from the dead?

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Sturgeon have been re-introduced to the Maumee River in Ohio with the hopes that they will return to Lake Erie.

Sturgeon have been re-introduced to the Maumee River in Ohio with the hopes that they will return to Lake Erie.

As an avid angler concerned with fisheries management and conservation, I’ve got a good fish story today.

But before I share that one, every dealer should be aware that an important goal for our industry is to see the Modern Fish Act passed, and dealers should be ready to answer any call that may come for us to engage.

We’ll take our cue from Nicole Vasilaros, Senior Vice President of Government Relations and Legal Affairs for the National Marine Manufacturers Association: “Modern Fish is a top priority and we are completely focused on a path forward in the lame duck session,” she said. “There are two scenarios that still play out— have it voted on by unanimous consent in the senate (needing all 100 members to agree) or attaching it to a larger bill that is moving forward, like the Lands Package which focuses on recreation, infrastructure and conservation efforts.”

Again, if any call should come out for dealers to be engaged, it will be critical to do so immediately.

Today’s other fish story

A current attempt to restore the mighty sturgeon to Lake Erie deserves a national shout out and illustrates what can happen when people pull together to make what some would call impossible, possible.

This fish story was recently told by Matt Markey, outdoors editor of the Toledo Blade. He dubbed the idea “one of those pie-in-the-sky kind of ecological moonshots.” After all, he observed, the once plentiful sturgeon in Lake Erie are long gone. In the 1800s they were caught for their eggs, which were sold as caviar. Commercial fishermen killed them because their large and powerful bodies could destroy fishing nets. Harvesting was unregulated.

Fast forward to five years ago and a group of conservationists sitting around the cocktail lounge of the Toledo Yacht Club. They hatched an idea to bring back the sturgeon. And their quest became a reality on a Saturday morning last month when 3,000 juvenile sturgeons were released to once again swim in the Maumee River that flows into Lake Erie.

A consortium of individuals, agencies and others has all played major roles in the sturgeon restoration project. (A complete list appears at the end of this blog.)

According to Chris Vandergoot, who was part of the initial sturgeon brainstorm: “I don’t think any of us would have imagined where we are today with the lake sturgeon restoration efforts currently under way.” He is a research fisheries biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the former administrator of the Lake Erie Fisheries Sandusky Research Station for the Ohio Division of Wildlife. He emphasized the strength of the consortium that has come together to make it happen.

“Our ability to work collaboratively with multiple state, federal, and provincial agencies to get to this point highlights the importance of interagency collaboration,” Vandergoot said.

It’s thought that more than 1 million sturgeon inhabited Lake Erie about 200 years ago. The 3,000 juvenile sturgeon released into the river had spent the past few months in a streamside rearing trailer designed to allowed them to become acclimated to the Maumee and imprinted with its chemical signature. The hope is they’ll eventually return to the river to spawn.

The Toledo Zoo & Aquarium raised about 600 of the sturgeon from eggs collected in U.S. and Canadian waters, while about 2,400 additional fish were brought in from the USFWS National Fish Hatchery in Wisconsin. The fish were about six months old and about seven inches long when they were released.

Markey aptly called the sturgeon “the Methuselah of fish.” They have dinosaur-like armor plating and a bill-like snout. They can live more than 100 years, reach 300 pounds and more than 11 feet in length. Adding to the complexity of their survival, sturgeon takes a long time to reach reproductive capability. Males won’t spawn until 15, then only every one to four years. Female sturgeon don’t spawn until they reach 20 years old, and then just once every four to six years.

As you read this, keep in mind this group was “talking about a dinosaur, a relic, a link to the distant prehistoric era that could trace its lineage into the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods of geologic time,” wrote Markey, “and possibly as far back as the Triassic period. This creature’s ancestors appear in the fossil record some 200 million years ago. And these people had a detailed and broad-ranging conversation about bringing it back.”

Sandy Bihn, executive director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper, a watershed advocacy organization, provided some of the initial push for the restoration project. “The river is always perceived as the muddy Maumee and not embraced as much as it should be, so maybe having this dinosaur fish swimming around might captivate people,” Bihn said. “It is thrilling to see this release of young sturgeon come about, and we hope to see this become a community-wide project that changes the general perception of the river.”

“There is a long road ahead, with respect to establishing a self-sustaining population, but I think the project is off to a great start,” Vandergoot said. Indeed it is - and a well-earned tip-o-the-cap to all involved in this inspiring undertaking.

Credit all these participants: The Toledo Zoo & Aquarium; the University of Toledo; Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife; Lake Erie Waterkeeper; Michigan Department of Natural Resources; U.S. Geological Survey; Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources; Purdy Fisheries Ltd; University of Windsor; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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