Lake sturgeon are the largest and oldest fish in the Great Lakes. A typical adult female is six-foot long, weighs over 100 pounds and can live for more than 100 years.
Native Americans call lake sturgeon, Nmé meaning grandfather fish. Like the buffalo to the Plains Indians, lake sturgeons were sacred to the Great Lakes Peoples. And just like the buffalo, the European settlers decimated North America’s sturgeon populations.
One of the biggest challenges for lake sturgeon is the need for fast-water spawning sites. Unfortunately for sturgeon, humans like to use fast water to generate electricity. When dams are built, the structures frequently eliminate access to the fishes’ historical spawning grounds.
Adult sturgeon will only return to their natal ground (birthplace) once every three or four years to spawn.
An 80-year-old female lake sturgeon returning to the Big Manistee River in 1919 to spawn suddenly finds her passageway blocked by the newly constructed Tippy Dam. The sturgeon is carrying 500,000 eggs and like many species, she is extremely particular about where to lay her eggs.
If the female lake sturgeon cannot reach her natal spawning grounds, she will not release her eggs.
The female leaves the Big Manistee River and reabsorbs all the eggs into her system. In two or three years she’ll try again. And she’ll keep returning every 3 to 4 years for the next 20 to 30 years, or the remainder of her life.
If restoration efforts are successful, one spring this female may find her passageway is no longer blocked by a hydro-electric dam.
I’ve created a timeline which illustrates why sturgeon use deep gravel for spawning and how many survive from each stage of their development. I’ve also included photos and video of each stage in a lake sturgeon’s life – from freshly-laid egg to spawning adult.
For more information visit Michigan DNR