Lake Sturgeon – Bringing us Back to the River

by Stephanie Ogren

Revered.  Despised.  Forgotten.  Persistent.  Renewed.  Lake sturgeon were once abundant but faded into near obscurity and are now so rare they are seldom observed and considered Threatened in Michigan.  A fascinating story connects us to sturgeon, a story of interesting people, familiar places, hope, and stewardship.  

lake sturgeon in michigan

Photo Credit: GRPM photos

As West Michigan flourishes, we look to our waterways as the heart and soul flowing through our communities. Along the rocky bottoms of our lakes and rivers lives an important environmental indicator for the health of our ecosystem, an ancient and majestic fish that for centuries has called this place home. Locally, the Big Manistee, Muskegon and Grand Rivers are still home to populations of lake sturgeon.

Throughout the Great Lakes region, people and lake sturgeon lived harmoniously for centuries. Lake sturgeon played a role in regional Native American creation and migration stories, ceremonial cycles and the structure of some communities.  People relied on the rivers and the fish for subsistence and both are featured in art, storytelling, song and ceremony. For Native American tribes in the region, the important cultural connection to this sacred place and fish continues today.

For generations, lake sturgeon were abundant and coexisted with Native Americans in this region. During the early 1800s, they were viewed as a nuisance bycatch of the commercial fishery and were often wastefully killed. Eventually new products and uses were developed including isinglass (a gelatin produced from the swim bladder) and caviar (salted eggs).  In response, a commercial fishery for lake sturgeon was born.  Overharvest in addition to habitat destruction, barriers to migration and pollution of waterways led to a decline in the sturgeon population to only 1% of historic numbers.  As a result, in 1929, the State of Michigan took action and banned all harvest with hopes of saving the species.  Due to this history of exploitation, lake sturgeon continue to be listed as either threatened or endangered by all of the Great Lakes states.

For decades lake sturgeon slipped into obscurity as other fish species became the cornerstone of Great Lakes management.  Recently, however, the sturgeon has re-emerged as an important species to protect and rehabilitate.  Just as people were involved in the collapse of sturgeon populations, they are now committed to the sturgeon’s recovery story. Lake sturgeon attract public interest due to their large size, accessibility, and prehistoric appeal. In many areas, they spawn in shallow water, attracting attention and offering a unique and unforgettable viewing experience.

history of sturgeon in michigan

Photo Credit: GRPM Collections

With increased interest and thoughtful management, progress is underway. Opportunities for restoration have included streamside rearing, habitat improvements, natural river flows, and improved connectivity of river systems. The hope for lake sturgeon restoration is to maintain self-sustaining populations and build connections to people as well as inspire curiosity and relationships in generations to come.  The Grand Rapids Public Museum has created an exhibit entitled “Grand Fish, Grand River” that explores the cultural, scientific and historical relationships of lake sturgeon and communities.

The inspiring stewardship story of this resilient creature empowers us to play an active role in the conservation of our waterways. Be a part of the story that is still being written….


stephanie ogren mrwa guest contributorAbout the Author: Stephanie A. Ogren

Stephanie Ogren was raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she is currently the Science Director for the Grand Rapids Public Museum.  She attended Central Michigan University where she received a B.S. in Biology and a M.S. in aquatic Sciences.  She completed a PhD at Michigan Technological University in restoration ecology.    The ability to translate this scientific information for the public has brought her back to the Grand Rapids Public Museum where she developed an exhibit documenting the journey of Lake Sturgeon through time.  She now develops programming, outreach and exhibits for the GRPM and strives to bring relevant scientific information to the public.