The Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned for federal protection for lake sturgeon, an ancient fish species in the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River drainage that has declined by roughly 99 percent over the past century or so.
Lake sturgeon can live for more than 100 years and grow longer than 8 feet.
Overfishing, dam construction and water pollution have driven many lake sturgeon populations toward the brink of extinction, according to the nonprofit.
“These behemoth fish are a bellwether for the health of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River,” said Marc Fink, the center’s public lands legal director. “The loss of our lake sturgeon has been much like the slaughter of the buffalo. We can barely imagine how abundant these great fish once were. To guarantee their long-term survival, we need to give real protection to them and their habitats.”
While populations have declined dramatically, the range of the lake sturgeon covers 23 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
The petition requests a “threatened” listing under the federal Endangered Species Act for all lake sturgeon in the United States, or alternatively for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether there are distinct populations of lake sturgeon that warrant separate listing.
Lake sturgeon in Minnesota, Lake Superior, the Missouri River, Ohio River, Arkansas-White River and lower Mississippi River are more endangered.
Sturgeon in Lake Michigan and the upper Mississippi River basin may qualify as threatened.
Lake sturgeon in the central and eastern Great Lakes — Lake Huron, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River basin — are less imperiled.
Although there are many restoration efforts currently aimed at bringing sturgeon back to rivers and tributaries where they once spawned, depleted sturgeon populations take many decades to recover, and the vast majority of spawning runs have been lost.
In the late 1800s, before commercial fisheries decimated sturgeon runs, lake sturgeon were so abundant that more than 15 million inhabited the Great Lakes. They are now reduced to less than 1 percent of historic levels, with limited natural recovery of most remaining spawning populations.
There are only six remaining lake sturgeon populations with more than 1,000 adult fish.
About the fish
Lake sturgeon can live up to 100 years, grow more than 8 feet long and weigh up to 300 pounds.
They have no scales but are covered by rows of bony scutes.
Preferred habitats are large shallow lakes, rivers and near-shore areas, where sturgeon feed using their protruding mouths to suction up bottom-dwelling organisms such as crustaceans and insect larvae.
Lake sturgeon have a low reproductive rate because they take 15 to 25 years to reach spawning age, and adults do not spawn every year.
Most states within the range of the lake sturgeon provide state protection as endangered, threatened, or “species of concern,” prohibiting or limiting their harvest.
Many states and tribal organizations are restoring lake sturgeon spawning populations through artificial propagation, reintroducing lake sturgeon to former habitats, removing some dams, and habitat enhancement projects.
However, most lake sturgeon populations have not recovered from the legacy of overfishing, and many still have access to the majority of former spawning and rearing habitats blocked by dams.
They continue to face a multitude of threats, including proposed construction of additional dams and hydroelectric facilities, excessive water diversions, water pollution, river dredging and channelization, and ecosystem disruption from invasive species and climate change.