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Maumee River Lake Sturgeon Release Draws Hundreds

A baby lake sturgeon [Elizabeth Miller/ideastream]
A baby lake sturgeon [Elizabeth Miller/ideastream]

After more than one hundred years of population instability, the lake sturgeon may be on its way back to the Maumee River and Lake Erie.

Saturday, The Toledo Zoo and other organizations released 3,000 baby lake sturgeon into the Maumee River.

Hundreds of people celebrated at a riverside release party, including Emma Johnson, whose biology class pulled together $25 to sponsor a fish.

“When we found out about the event, [our biology teacher] said, ‘everyone bring in a dollar, we’re buying a sturgeon!’” said Johnson. “Everyone got super excited.”

A group of public officials and organizations involved in the restoration prepare to release sturgeon into the Maumee River [Elizabeth Miller/ideastream]

The lake sturgeon is a prehistoric fish native to Lake Erie. The ancient fish once thrived here, but too much commercial fishing drove it to near extinction by the 1900s. Sturgeon eggs were used for caviar and their skin for fuel to run boats, said biologist Christopher Vandergoot.

“Once they developed a market for these fish, they were overexploited very, very quickly,” said Vandergoot, who works for the US Geological Survey.

The sturgeon is now an endangered species.

This new restocking effort will also serve as an experiment to find the best method to restore a fish population. Some of the sturgeon came from a Toledo Zoo facility where they were nurtured using Maumee River water, while the rest came from a hatchery in Wisconsin.

“Do we need to go through the effort of raising fish here locally to establish a population,” said Vandergoot.

Vandergoot says it’s not clear what niche the sturgeon will fill, but he said the fish serves as a host for mussels in the Lake Erie watershed, which could help with biodiversity.

“Reintroducing lake sturgeon brings back a complete ecosystem,” said Vandergoot. “That’s kind of the drive behind the restoration efforts.”

A couple wearing sturgeon t-shirts [Elizabeth Miller/ideastream]

The juvenile sturgeon released in the Maumee River are about six inches long now, but over the next 15 to 20 years, they could grow to 10 feet -- and 200 pounds.

There have already been successful sturgeon recovery efforts further west in the Detroit River.

Over the next 10 to 20 years, 3,000 juvenile sturgeon will be released into the Maumee annually. The Toledo Zoo will continue to host a release event.

Hosts and partners involved in Saturday’s event were surprised so many people attended.

“When the Toledo Zoo decided to host this and have this down here, I had no idea whether we were talking about a dozen people or hundreds of people,” said Kent Bekker, Director of Conservation and Research for the zoo. “I think it’s a testament to the river itself and how tied to that people are.”

The Lake Erie Foundation’s Sandy Bihn waited in line to sponsor fish with three of her grandchildren. She hopes the event gets people to appreciate the river more.

“I hope their kids will see these and sponsor in the future,” said Bihn. “They will look back on this, and I think, remember it as a moment in their lives.”