Besides a professional basketball player named Shaq, what starts out life smaller than a pea and can sometimes grow to seven feet and 300 pounds? It is the lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens), a fascinating fish found in Ohio. They are the largest fish in the Great Lakes and are one of the longest-lived freshwater fish in the world with the oldest recorded at 152 years.
Lake sturgeon lack scales and look like armor plated torpedoes. The bony plates called scutes are topped with sharp ridges with one plate on top and two rows along each side of the body giving the fish a prehistoric look. The head is cone shaped with four barbels in front of a sucker-like mouth which is located far behind its snout.
The word sturgeon means “stirrer” which describes how this fish looks for food; it stirs up the mud and silt on river and lake bottoms and uses the barbels to help it find snails, mollusks, clams, crayfish, and insect larvae along with some fish and plant material.
The lake sturgeon requires large bodies of water with connections to much smaller streams. Historically these fish were found in the Ohio River and Lake Erie and they used to come up the Maumee River system as far up as the Ottawa River near Lima and the Scioto River as far up as Columbus. Today lake sturgeons are present in Lake Erie but no longer in the Ohio River drainage due to the numerous dams that prevent them from reaching their spawning grounds.
These unusual fish are not only long lived; they are the slowest to mature freshwater fish species. Females reach sexual maturity between 14 and 33 years of age and males between eight and 10 years of age. Females spawn once every four to nine years and males between two to seven years. They prefer clean, gravel shoals and stream rapids with water temperatures between 55 and 64 degrees. Females lay 4,000 to 5,000 eggs per pound of body weight.
Sturgeon roe and smoked sturgeon have long been considered a delicacy and commercial exploitation is one of several factors implicated in the decline of this unique fish. Habitat loss, pollution, dams, channelization, and dredging are thought to be additional reasons for today’s low populations.
In Ohio, the lake sturgeon is classified as a state endangered species; this means if one is caught, it must be released. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, interest in the restoration of this magnificent fish is growing. Partnerships in the Great Lakes basin between natural resources agencies, commercial anglers, recreational users, landowners, and others in the U.S. and Canada are on the lookout for the fish and are collecting important information.
The goal is to better understand the species and assist with increasing healthy populations. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources – Division of Wildlife’s website at www.wildlife.ohiodnr.gov/ has a species guide where one can learn more about the lake sturgeon, and related shovelnose sturgeon, as well as other wildlife found in our great state.
Speaking of fish, Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District is conducting its annual fish fingerling sale. While none of these fingerlings will rival a lake sturgeon, they are all appropriate for stocking of your pond. Click on “Current Newsletter” on our website at www.delawareswcd.org or www.facebook.com/DelawareSWCD for ordering information.
Orders will be taken through September 30, 2016 and pick up is scheduled for Oct. 6.