A Sturgeon’s Life

Lake sturgeon are the largest and oldest fish in the Great Lakes. A typical adult female is 6-foot-long, weighs over 100 pounds and can live for more than 100 years.

Lake Sturgeon Spawning
Adult lake sturgeon only spawn once every 3 – 4 years. Image Greg Lashbrook.

Native Americans call lake sturgeon, Nmé meaning grandfather fish. Like buffalo to the Plains Indians, lake sturgeon are sacred to the Great Lakes Peoples. And much like the buffalo, European settlers decimated North America’s sturgeon populations.

One of the biggest challenges lake sturgeon continue to face is competition 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 historical spawning grounds.

Adult sturgeon return to their natal (birthplace) rivers once every three to four years to spawn. And it’s not uncommon for things to have changed since their last visit.

For example, an 80-year-old female returning to the Big Manistee River in 1919 to spawn would have found her passageway blocked by the newly constructed Tippy Dam.

adult lake sturgeon in the St. Clair River
A female lake sturgeon ready to spawn. Image by Greg Lashbrook

She was carrying 500,000 eggs and like most expecting mothers, she’s extremely particular about where she lays her eggs.

If she can’t reach her natal spawning grounds, she won’t spawn!

The Big Manistee River female leaves and reabsorbs the eggs into her system. But she won’t give up. For the remainder of her life (20 to 30 more years,) she will keep returning every 3 to 4 years to try and spawn.

Why does the site matter so much?

The following timeline illustrates why lake sturgeon need deep gravel for spawning. It also shows the survival rate from each stage of their development with underwater photos and videos of each stage in a lake sturgeon’s life cycle. Click the link below to see a –

Lake sturgeon life cycle illustrated

underwater image of Kathy Johnson's hand as she releases a juvenile lake sturgeon
Kathy Johnson releases a juvenile lake sturgeon at a LRBOI event in Manistee, MI.
Image by Greg Lashbrook

Additional information on lake sturgeon can be found by visiting the Michigan DNR or National Geographic

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