Protected stugeons make a comeback

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(Host) A century ago, Lake Champlain sturgeon were sought after by commercial fishermen. Today the prehistoric fish is an endangered species. Biologists have been studying the fish for the last several years and as VPR’s Steve Zind reports, there are signs the sturgeon is making a comeback.

(Everett Dubuque) “Got a lead line, and you got a float line here. The floats are on top and the leads are on the bottom.”

(Zind) Everett Dubuque was the last commercial sturgeon fisherman on Lake Champlain. Sturgeon fishing was halted in 1967. Until then Dubuque would drop his 500-foot long nets in the lake every spring. In a good season he says he netted 100 sturgeon.

(Dubuque) “As soon as you pick your net up you could feel the fish if you had one in there. Most generally, you could feel him kicking in there. And you could tell just by the kick what size fish you had. And then you had a gaffe. When you got into the right position you would pull him into the boat.”

(Zind) Dubuque packed the fish in barrels of ice and shipped them to New York. He would also sell the caviar produced from sturgeon eggs.

The lake sturgeon has changed little in 65 million years. It has a long, slender, shark-like body arrayed with bony humps, or scoots. A protruding mouth on the underside allows the fish to patrol the lake bottom in search of food. Dubuque says the fish he caught averaged about 75 pounds.

(Dubuque) “The biggest one I ever caught was 225 pounds, just a little bit over eight feet. That was a big fish.”

(Zind) It’s likely a fish that size was over a 100 years old. Chet MacKenzie is a state fisheries biologist.

(MacKenzie) “To find a 100-year old fish in a population wouldn’t be rare in those situations where they’re not overfished. A female may take 30 years to reach maturity.”

(Zind) The lake sturgeon’s Methuselah-like life span and slow growth has contributed to its decline – making it hard for the fish to recover from almost a century of depredations from over fishing, loss of spawning habitat and water pollution. No one knows how many of the fish are left in Lake Champlain, only that there aren’t many.

In 1998, MacKenzie set out to learn if there was still a viable population. He captured sturgeon in the Lamoille and Winooski rivers during the spring spawning season.

(MacKenzie) “I have some great pictures here if you want to look at them. It’s something to pull a six-foot fish over the side of the boat and then to work him up. We’ve learned some pretty interesting techniques. If you put a sturgeon on it’s back and put your thumb on the roof of it’s mouth, it has these small bony plates, and if your rub those bony plates, the fish just lays there.”

(Zind) After five years of work, MacKenzie’s encouraged by his findings. He and his team have captured and tagged a small number of sturgeon. They have documented that the fish is spawning in at least two Vermont rivers. Last spring, for the first time, they found eggs and larva.

MacKenzie says the next step is to see if sturgeons are spawning in the Missisquoi and Otter Creek. Water quality is better. Dam relicensing has improved river flows in spawning areas. MacKenzie says there’s a good chance sturgeon will rebound, but it will take time. Even if they return to their previous numbers, the sight of a large sturgeon in Lake Champlain will remain an unusual and thrilling experience.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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