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Swimming Upstream: Fending off sturgeon poachers (part 4)

sturgeon baby
Photo courtesy of USFS, Rob Elliott
A juvenile lake sturgeon.

This week, we're focusing on fish for our series Swimming Upstream. And today, Dustin Dwyer has a story about one of the most fascinating fish in the Great Lakes. Sturgeon have been around for more than 100 million years.  Each fish can live more than a hundred years, weigh more than a hundred pounds and stretch eight or nine feet long. But sturgeon have also been the target of overfishing and poaching. Dustin caught up with one group in northern Michigan that's trying to save them.  Here's his story:

So about a month or two ago, I was sitting along the bank of the Black River, way up near Onaway. And I was next to Jesse Hide, who has lived in this area all his life, and watched sturgeon all his life. We were keeping an eye out for sturgeon heading up the river to spawn.

“There's one coming up right there ... he's coming back down now.”

The long, spear-like fish occasionally poke their heads out of the water, like a submarine coming to the surface.

We're sitting right next to a deep pool where Jesse says the sturgeon like to spawn. It's not really in full swing yet. If it was, you could tell.

“The males, if you think about it, they're like a torpedo and they'll curl to where they're like the shape of a banana, and they're really, really quick sideways movement and it's like a thumping, (imitates noise) like that.”

Hide says it's so violent, you can feel it through the ground.

Also, get this, if you come across a sturgeon, you can pet it, and it doesn't seem to mind.

“If you grab a tail, they'll freak out. They will. They'll take right off and make a big ruckus, but when you're just touching them and stuff, it don't bug ‘em.”

But Hide says that's also part of the problem. These water giants are a little too gentle. And in the shallow waters of the Black River where they spawn, they're incredibly vulnerable. Hide has seen evidence of poaching.

"One had been killed and whoever had killed the fish had tied it up. And we found the fish before they actually had a chance to come back and get it."

The survival of sturgeon is pretty important to Hide and his whole family. His mom founded the first and only Michigan chapter of a group called Sturgeon for Tomorrow.

Every year, the group rounds up volunteers to sit on the bank of the Black River, to guard this area as the sturgeon swim here to spawn.

For many volunteers, it's a chance to see one of the Great Lakes' most awe-inspiring fish.

“It's a unique fish because it's a prehistoric animal, you know.”

Jack McAfee is one of the volunteers on guard.

“And I can't believe that people would poach them and come out here in the river when they're spawning and catch them and things like that. But this is the reason the guard is here."

Ann Feldhauser coordinates the volunteers for this river guard. She says sturgeon are extremely valuable because of their eggs.

“And a female sturgeon if it reaches a hundred pounds or more can produce gallons of eggs which can then be processed and sold on the black market as caviar.”

There was a time when sturgeon were pulled out of the Black Lake by the hundreds. Most of it was legal, but there was some poaching too.

Now, though, among the volunteers I've talked to, no one has ever even seen a poacher. No one here has to pack a pistol or be ready to fight. They discourage poaching just by being here.

And sturgeon are making a comeback.

But it can take sturgeon at least 15 years to reach reproductive age, and even then they don't spawn every year.

So it's a slow process.

-Dustin Dwyer for The Environment Report

Tomorrow, Dustin tries to understand the mind of a fish.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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