Sturgeon End of Life Cycle

by Wayne Groesbeck
Vice Chair of MRWA

Wayne Groesbeck board member for Muskegon River Watershed Assembly

Wayne Groesbeck board member, Muskegon River Watershed Assembly

Biologists and other researchers have learned a great deal from studying the movements of lake sturgeon at all stages of their active lives. If we pay attention, they also have much to teach us at the end of the life cycle.

In the Spring of 2004, Georgia University sturgeon researcher Paul Vecsei and local outdoor writer Bob Kingsley retrieved from the Muskegon Channel the fresh carcass of a female lake sturgeon.  The fish, later nicknamed Molly, had apparently been struck by the propeller of a coal freighter destined for the power plant on Muskegon Lake.  Molly was over six feet long and weighed 130 pounds.  This rare opportunity was not wasted; tissue samples were shipped around the country and overseas for study.  The fact that Molly proved to be a mere forty years old indicated her Michigan habitat was rich in food.  The rarity of such an event also indicated how close the Muskegon River came to losing its entire sturgeon strain prior to the total protection of the species in 1994.

At the same time, the carcass of a female sturgeon of the same size washed ashore in Lake Erie.  Rather than an accident victim, scientists determined that this fish had succumbed to spawning stress. The Erie fish had lived a harder life than Molly; rather than age forty, tissue samples indicated this fish was one hundred seven years old, and had just completed her estimated sixteenth spawning run.

sturgeon in Michigan That would mean the Erie fish was hatched in one of the swifter tributaries of Lake Erie in the Spring of 1897, when President William McKinley had just been inaugurated.  The first shipment of gold from the Yukon rush had arrived stateside, and the first Sherlock Holmes and Dracula stories were about to be published.  In light of her slow growth rate, she probably didn’t spawn till around 1922, at age twenty five and a length of four and a half feet.  Herbert Hoover was President, the first commercial radio stations were coming on air, and the City of Green Bay acquired a football team.  That year, she would have produced fifty thousand tiny sticky eggs which were immediately fertilized by a cluster of three to five pursuing males a foot shorter than her.  This ritual would be reenacted in the same natal stream at five year intervals for the next eighty two years.  On her final run, she may have produced seven hundred fifty thousand eggs.  Lake sturgeon grow slowly, but they never stop growing.

In Cheboygan the volunteer organization, which promotes and assists sturgeon restoration in the Black Lake watershed is called Sturgeon for Tomorrow, an appropriate name considering that many of today’s members will not see the results of their efforts on behalf of a creature with a century long life cycle.