Home Environment The Toledo Zoo is planning on reintroducing this prehistoric fish species to the Great Lakes

The Toledo Zoo is planning on reintroducing this prehistoric fish species to the Great Lakes

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After a century of population decline, the lake sturgeon is making its comeback to Lake Erie, thanks in large part to the Toledo Zoo.

The lake sturgeon fish is older than the dinosaurs, but has been nearly extinct from the Great Lakes since the early 1900s. But next month, the Toledo Zoo will release 3,000 juvenile sturgeon fish into one of Lake Erie’s largest tributaries.

The Toledo Zoo received grant funding from the Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act Grants Program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to build a facility on zoo-owned property near the Maumee River to hatch and rear the fish. The Ohio Division of Wildlife funds the continued operation of the facility.

Historically, lake sturgeon — which can survive for nearly 150 years and grow upward of 6 feet long and 300 pounds — have returned to 19 sites along the Great Lakes to spawn, but overfishing has reduced the number to just two fragmented populations.

“Originally, sturgeon were thought of as a trash fish and they were just discarded,” Toledo Zoo Director of Conservation and Research Kent Bekker said.

“Then, they realized they could burn them because they were so oily. As the European and Russian caviar industry took off, they realized they could be used as consumption either as caviar or as meat.”

In Ohio, the lake sturgeon is now an endangered species and cannot be harvested.

At the facility, however, keepers have raised 600 sturgeon from eggs collected in U.S. and Canadian waters early this year to be released in October.

“This is a unique effort to Ohio, but this is not a unique effort within the Great Lakes,” Bekker said, noting that there are about 12 other streamside facilities. “Proof of concept has already been achieved elsewhere, so we’re basically following that model, just here in Ohio.”

Lake sturgeon played a critical role historically as a benthic fish, meaning they act as bottom-feeders. The fish produce eggs and offspring, most of which served as a food source for other species.

For wild sturgeon to spawn, they need sites with clean, coarse rocks and cracks to protect their eggs and larvae from natural predators. They require swift flowing water to cleanse and oxygenate the eggs.

“There’s a lot that anybody can do to help make sure that our water quality remains quality,” Bekker said. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that what you put in the river goes downriver and goes out to Lake Erie. So (agricultural) field runoffs, lawn chemicals, anything that in essence, on some level, that we’re flushing down our storm drains or sewer system, is ultimately going to end up in our Great Lakes.”

Interested community members can sponsor a fish starting at $25. Each sponsored animal will be marked with a unique microchip, and if the fish is ever caught during monitoring processes, the Toledo Zoo will notify its sponsor.

Zoo representatives, state and federal wildlife experts, and members of the public will be able to release lake sturgeon themselves on Oct. 6 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The fish are 6 or 7 inches long at the juvenile stage of development, long enough to embed trackers.

After the release party, fish biologists with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife, U.S. Geological Survey, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will monitor the population. The goal is for the fish to use their homing abilities to return to the Maumee River waterway in approximately 15 years to spawn.

Bekker said the zoo and its partners are committed for a period of 10 to 20 years of annual sturgeon reintroduction in the Maumee River.

The zoo’s other conservation efforts include the aquatic Ohio hellbender salamander, the Karner blue butterfly, turtle research, and urban prairie ecological and habitat services.

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