Sturgeon United

Sturgeon: Bringing us together again

By: Marty Holtgren Executive Director Muskegon River Watershed Assembly

Sturgeon have always brought people together. For thousands of years they have spawned, hatched and been nurtured in tributaries to the Great Lakes and people have always awaited their return. In Port Huron, on February 21st and 22nd, another sturgeon gathering took place: the 2018 Great Lakes Lake Sturgeon Coordination Meeting. Starting in 2002 this session has brought biologists, researchers, academia, commercial and recreation anglers, and conservation groups together to exchange information about sturgeon. For each of the five meetings I have had the privilege to work alongside my sturgeon colleagues to help organize and facilitate. Of all my professional meetings I look forward to it the most because it is designed to help sturgeon and the people working on them to stay around for generations to come.

Young Sturgeon

The diversity of participants and organizations is always high. This year there were 8 federal, provincial and state governments represented, six tribal nations/groups, and over ten universities, county governments, consulting firms, industry, and conservation groups. The Muskegon River watershed was well represented at the meeting by George Heartwell (MRWA Board Member) along with some of our partners including Grand Valley State University, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Even with this type of attention placed on sturgeon over the past two decades most populations in the Great Lakes are very small. The Muskegon River is no exception with less than 100 returning to spawn each year.

In this article I wanted to highlight a few of the meeting presentations and topics that are relevant to the Muskegon River watershed and its sturgeon population.

What is suitable habitat for sturgeon larvae? One of the first presentations of the meeting was by Dr. Nancy Auer from Michigan Technological University. Dr. Auer has been a fixture of sturgeon research in the Great Lakes for over 25 years and I was fortunate enough to have been mentored by her as a Graduate Student at MTU. I spent many cold and late nights with her on the Sturgeon River in Baraga County capturing sturgeon larvae as they drifted downstream just after hatch. During her presentation she described how very little is known about larval sturgeon habitat and that as we work to protect habitat in rivers we need to understand this critical life-stage. She described three years of studies where her team was unable to capture larvae during the day using kick nets, seines, and even vacuum sampling. She encouraged the participants to look at other research being done on other sturgeon species across the northern hemisphere to help unravel the mysteries of larval sturgeon habitat use.

Using Molecular data to evaluate predation of young sturgeon. Dr. Kim Scribner from Michigan State University has been conducting research at Black Lake (Cheboygan County) for over a decade. He presented on the predation of sturgeon larvae and eggs by other fish, crayfish and even insects. His research is important because predation is a major factor affecting recruitment during early life stages of many fish species. Answering the question about predation on young sturgeon has been allusive because of the difficulty in finding the fragile parts of young sturgeon in the stomachs of potential predators. Dr. Scribner is using a new genetic tool to answer the question. By collecting DNA from the gastrointestinal tracts (stomach and intestines) of potential predators he has been using sturgeon-specific mitochondrial DNA to look for the presence of sturgeon. Through these molecular techniques Dr. Scribner and his students are successfully quantifying different factors that affect predation on young lake sturgeon and to what extent other animals prey on them.

Minimizing the effects of Sea Lamprey Treatments on Lake Sturgeon. I found myself eagerly awaiting the presentation by Dr. Michael Wilkie from Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. I have worked with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and Michigan DNR in evaluating the effects of TFM (a chemical designed to control lamprey) on young lake sturgeon in the Muskegon River. His prestation described possible ways to control see lamprey while protecting lake sturgeon; an issue that is critically important for the Muskegon River sturgeon. The difficulty for treating lamprey in the Muskegon River is due to its water chemistry. While lampricide (TFM) effectively targets lamprey with minimal effects to most other fish, juvenile lake sturgeon are particularly sensitive; especially in waters of high alkalinity, such as is found in both the Muskegon and Manistee Rivers. Dr. Wilkie described two goals his research team; 1) to understand how water chemistry effected sturgeon during a TFM treatment and 2) to develop alternate approaches for TFM application to protect sturgeon from mortality. The presentation was highly technical but Dr. Wilkie succeeded in making a complex topic understandable. He described how the researchers measured TFM uptake by sturgeon using radioactively-labelled TFM at different levels of alkalinities. Surprisingly, they found that TFM uptake in sturgeon decreased with increased alkalinity. This indicated that the sturgeon’s susceptibility to TFM at high alkalinity was not due to an increased uptake rather sturgeon had a low capacity to detoxify their bodies to TFM.

This brought us to the exciting part where research and fishery management merged! Dr. Wilkie described how sturgeon survival could be improved by decreasing the dosage of TFM while extending the treatments for longer periods (24 hours instead of 9). He termed this as a “low and long” approach. This new approach shows promise in protecting sturgeon while not compromising sea lamprey control efforts. Further studies are ongoing to continue to understand the nuances of this approach and there is certainly hope that this technique will lead to even more successful lamprey control and sturgeon protection efforts.

Many other interesting topics were discussed and included public outreach for sturgeon, population updates and emerging research. It would take too long to describe them all but if you are interested the presentations will be posted to a website in the near future. MRWA will post the link once it is available.

Finally, during the evening of the first night the attendees gathered for a social to catch up with friends and discuss sturgeon. The highlight of the night came during a recognition ceremony for three long-time sturgeon researchers who were retiring.

• Nancy Auer from Michigan Technological University
• Mike Thomas from Michigan Department of Natural Resources
• Lloyd Mohr from Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources

All three were founders of the ‘Sturgeon Movement’ in the Great Lakes and have provided us from the second generation a great foundation to continue from. Each is known for their dedication to sturgeon stewardship, sharing knowledge with colleagues, and their extensive public outreach. In Nancy Auer’s speech she spoke of the young and upcoming researchers in the room and encouraged us to support their development because they are the future of sturgeon stewardship. Mike Thomas encouraged us to provide the public with opportunities to experience sturgeon. He described how sturgeon had influenced his life and how sturgeon make an undoubtable mark on anyone that is able to touch and see them. Finally, Lloyd Mohr summed up how sturgeon researchers are a sharing group of people and that we needed to keep this alive. He ended his talk with some advice, “After the meeting email someone and tell them you enjoyed their presentation, send someone information that would help them, and send someone information they should have had.” Seems like great advice for whatever vocation you may be in.

In 2018 the MRWA will have opportunities to experience sturgeon and be involved in raising awareness of the unique fish. Stay tuned…