Ontonagon River Lake Sturgeon:
The Past, Present and Bright Future
BY ASHLAND FWCO
provided gametes. Credit: USFWS Henry Quinlan
The story of the Ontonagon River lake sturgeon population is a familiar one in many ways; a once diverse, productive fishery extinguished by a multitude of factors including over-harvest, habitat loss, diminished water quality, construction of dams, etc. One of the largest rivers along the south shore of Lake Superior, the Ontonagon once supported an abundant, self-sustaining lake sturgeon population. For nearly 10,000 years, lake sturgeon from Lake Superior ascended its reddish, turbid waters each spring to spawn at the base of waterfalls or over rock and boulders left by the retreat of glaciers. The earliest written accounts of the region by the Henry Rowe Schoolcraft expedition of the 1760s provide insight on the historic sturgeon population,
trailer. Credit: USFWS Henry Quinlan
“Upon arriving at the river and arranging for guides and support staff for the expedition party… the explorers proceeded up river under the canopy of heavily wooded banks and lush foliage. At the distance of four miles upriver from the mouth they reached a Sturgeon fishery, which the Indians established in the river by means of a weir extending from bank to bank…the number of sturgeon caught at this site is astonishing, a month’s subsistence for a regiment, could have been taken in a few hours…an opening was left on one side of the weir that allowed sturgeon to pass upstream which they did in that time of year in vast numbers.”
raised by the Ashland FWCO.
Credit: USFWS Henry Quinlan
Fast forward 250 years in time and the Ontonagon River sturgeon population is extinct. In 2003, the Lake Sturgeon Rehabilitation Plan for Lake Superior identified the Ontonagon River as a priority for restoration stocking.
In 2013, the Ontonagon River story took a dramatic turn as fishery agencies, in cooperation with the Upper Peninsula Power Company (UPPCO) established a 15-20 year partnership with a goal of re-establishing the once abundant lake sturgeon population in the Ontonagon River. To reach this goal, a portable sturgeon rearing trailer constructed by staff at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Genoa National Fish Hatchery was delivered to Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ashland Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office (FWCO) for use on the Ontonagon River at UPPCO’s Bergland Dam facility. The Ashland FWCO in cooperation with Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Ottawa National Forest, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and other key partners began raising lake sturgeon this past spring. Eggs were collected from lake sturgeon in the Sturgeon River, a nearby watershed with a healthy population. The eggs were transferred to the streamside rearing trailer where they were hatched on West Branch Ontonagon River water that is pumped through the trailer. By rearing these lake sturgeon using Ontonagon River water it is our hope that in 20-25 years after the young sturgeon are released later this year, they will exhibit “homing” behavior and return to the Ontonagon River to spawn as adults. Currently the Ashland FWCO is rearing approximately 1,000 healthy 2-3 inch lake sturgeon along the banks of the Ontonagon River. Stay tuned for more as the story progresses!