By Elizabeth Lee
---- — The Department of Environmental Conservation released 10,000 4-month-old fingerling lake sturgeon in North Country waters Oct. 22. Fingerlings are 5-to-8-inch juvenile fish — they are just babies but we can count on at least a few of them to get really big and really old.
Sturgeon can grow to be 8 feet in length and live as long as 150 years. They can weigh 100 to 200 pounds.
According to a DEC press release, “Approximately 7,000 lake sturgeon (have been) stocked in the St. Lawrence River in Ogdensburg. ... The Salmon River, St. Regis River, and Raquette River will receive a portion of the remaining fingerlings, continuing the St. Lawrence River tributary stocking program, which has been ongoing for several years.”
Lake Sturgeon are from an ancient family of fish that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says has “been recognized since the Upper Cretaceous period (136 million years ago), at a time when dinosaurs were at the height of their development.”
During the late 1800s sturgeon thrived in freshwater habitats, until commercial fishermen began to see them as a nuisance because of the damage they caused to nets and industrial dams created barriers to spawning grounds. Eventually fishermen reversed their hostility when the value of caviar and smoked sturgeon meat increased into a multi-million dollar business.
The USFWS reports that “during the heavy fishing years from 1879 to 1900, the commercial catch of lake sturgeon in the Great Lakes averaged over 4 million pounds. In 1885, a maximum of 8.6 million pounds were harvested.”
In addition to their meat, sturgeon were harvested to be dried for fuel, ground for fertilizer and processed for isinglass. Isinglass is a gelatin product made from the swim bladders of fish. Isinglass from sturgeon was used well into the 20th century to clarify jelly and is still used to clarify some wines and beers. Isinglass from sturgeon air bladders is also used to make adhesives for the restoration of paper and books.
The fingerlings released this year will find their way to the bottom of lakes and river systems throughout the North Country and quietly vacuum the bottoms of these waterways for decades. They locate insect larvae, worms, leeches, crayfish and snails with four long whiskers that grow on their snouts. They suck prey into their mouths with big soft lips but they have no teeth with which to chew.
They are quiet fish that don’t seem to fear boats and humans. Research is also being done about the low sonic sounds — like the sonic capability of whales and elephants — they make at the onset of spawning.
Since lake sturgeon are among the amazing species that have survived whatever wiped out dinosaurs as well as numerous ice ages, they should hold a place of honor in any ecosystem.
In other parts of North America they are surrounded by traditions. The book “People of the Sturgeon” tells the story of their relationship with communities that have stewarded remnant populations back to thriving members of lake and river ecosystems.
Recent restoration efforts by DEC are akin to the restoration of extirpated bald eagles and moose. Lake sturgeon are still considered threatened in New York state and it is illegal to harvest them.
Imagine a fish released this week outliving everyone reading the paper today.
Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.