The sturgeon is truly an amazing fish. Described as both “remarkably ugly” and “really amazing” by environmental historian Nancy Langston, the sturgeon have a long and tumultuous history.
Langston, Professor of Environmental History at Michigan Technological University, gave a talk in 2019 tracing the history of sturgeon all the way back to the Triassic period 250 million years ago. Over the years, the fish have evolved to grow around seven or eight feet long, and can live for up to 150 years. They also developed sucker-like mouths, leaving Langston to describe the fish as, “little Dyson vacuum cleaners that have evolved to go sucking up the crustaceans and mollusks and crabs, and then they just kind of swallow them.”
Historically, lake sturgeon would migrate back to their birthplace to reproduce, and were frequently found in the Great Lakes region. The Indigenous groups that lived there would travel with the fish, using them as their main food source. European settlers arrived in the 1800s as they began pushing west, and the commercial fishing industry began targeting herring and lake trout in the area, rather than sturgeon.
However, due to their size and strength, the sturgeon would rip right through the commercial fishing nets, resulting in fishermen deeming the fish to be pests. “And so commercial fishermen just slaughtered them,” Langston explained. The settlers continued to push the Indigenous communities off of their land, resulting in further habitat destruction.
Once steamships began to arrive, fishermen would capture the sturgeon and dry them outside, then burn them as logs to fuel their ships. Eventually in the 1880s, entrepreneurs began selling sturgeon roe as caviar, and in the early 20th century, newly built paper mills polluted the waters the sturgeon called home. Naturally, the sturgeon were on the brink of extinction.
“Any one of these things and sturgeon could be resilient against them, but when they all happen one after another, both the sturgeon and Indigenous peoples found themselves with a problem,” Langston emphasized. Thankfully, the past few decades have been dedicated to conservation efforts focused on restoring the sturgeon population. And those efforts seem to be working!
In the end of April, 2021, three scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office were out on the Detroit River setting up fishing lines for their annual survey of the sturgeon lake population. The scientists checked the first three lines and according to one of the scientists on board, Paige Wigren, the largest thing they had caught so far was a 5-gallon plastic bucket. In the 19th century, there were an estimated half a million sturgeon in the Detroit River. Now, scientists believe there are less than 7,000.
Then, the scientists moved on to the fourth line. “All of the sudden, this gray and white shadow came to the surface, and for about 5 to 8 minutes we struggled to try to get the fish into the net,” she recalled. Finally, they were able to get the fish onto the boat and, “that’s when it really sunk in how large this fish was.”
The giant, healthy sturgeon they pulled out of the water set a new record at 240 pounds and nearly 7 feet in length. The scientists aboard believe the sturgeon is a female, at least 100 years old. Jennifer Johnson quickly laid next to the sturgeon for a photo to show just how large this fish is. Then, of course, this unexpected creature was released back into the river. “The fact that the sturgeon has survived for so long and probably has seen more than any of us could imagine is kind of phenomenal,” Johnson said. “I think everybody loves a good… fish story.”Whizzco