Captive Rearing Strategies Could Impact Lake Sturgeon Recovery Success

by guest contributor Derek Smith

Flowing between the kitschy, Bavarian-style architecture of Frankenmuth, Michigan is the Cass River, where biologists released 104 young lake sturgeon in September 2022. Before releasing them, the biologists equipped the sturgeon with tracking and identification devices to follow the fish’s movements and survival after their release. That knowledge is critical to assess the success of sturgeon release events because there is no guarantee the sturgeon will remain where they are released.

A small lake sturgeon being held in a person's hands.
A young lake sturgeon being released into the Cass River. The fish will leave the river after its first year, but scientists are hoping that they return when they are old enough to spawn. Photo courtesy Derek Smith.

Once numerous in North American freshwaters, lake sturgeon are considered globally endangered due in part to severe overfishing in the late 1800s and early 1900s and are absent from many rivers where they historically lived, such as the Saginaw River and its tributaries, including the Cass River. According to US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Justin Chiotti, the goal of releasing captive-raised sturgeon is to “restore historic populations to self-sustaining levels.”

But sturgeon don’t hunker down in one place. After one year, many sturgeon leave their birth rivers to live in lakes, bays, and river mouths. When they reach sexual maturity between twelve and twenty-seven years later, the sturgeon return to their natal waters, which are better suited to spawning. There, fertilized eggs and larval fish take shelter from predators between the rock crevices in cobblestone substrate and thrive on the fast-flowing, oxygen-rich water.

How sturgeon navigate back to their rivers of origin is still largely unknown, but scientists think that larval sturgeon imprint to chemical signatures in their natal waters. Later in life, the sturgeon “sniff” their way back to their natal rivers to spawn by following those chemical queues.

Imprinting captive-reared sturgeon to rivers where they are now extirpated presents a challenge to conservation biologists When sturgeon are not raised in the waters in which biologists plan to restore self-sustaining populations, the re-introduced fish might not imprint to the historic habitat, potentially reducing the return rates when the fish are old enough to spawn. ,

A lake sturgeon fish hatchery in Genoa, WI. Photo courtesy Derek Smith.

Stream-side rearing facilities could be the solution to the imprinting challenge. At these facilities, biologists raise sturgeon directly in the river water where the sturgeon will be released. The Toledo Zoo has one such facility along the Maumee River, where they have been raising fish for release into the Maumee River since 2018. Similar facilities are located in Michigan, such as the Black River facility run by Michigan State University and the Big Manistee River facility run by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.

According to Matt Cross, the Toledo Zoo’s Conservation Coordinator,“the idea with the stream-side facility is that the fish will pick up on the different chemical cues from the river, which they will use to return to the river to spawn.” By raising sturgeon in the waters to which they will later be released, the Zoo’s biologists are increasing the chances that the sturgeon are in the river water during the developmental stage when imprinting occurs, which Cross says is “a big question mark.”

But the stream-side facilities are costly and have water quality issues that off-site hatchery facilities optimized to grow large amounts of fish are better equipped to manage. The National Fish Hatchery in Genoa, Wisconsin is one such facility. There, U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologists rear sturgeon from eggs in Genoa well water. The facility raises hundreds to thousands of sturgeon for release into rivers each year, but there is a chance that hatchery-raised fish miss the crucial period at which imprinting occurs before they are large enough to be released. The unknown timing of when sturgeon can imprint to rivers obscures the relative effectiveness of these two rearing strategies.

Larval lake sturgeon swim around a tank filled with well water at the Genoa National Fish Hatchery. Biologists refer to the fish at this age as “free-living embryos” because they still have a yolk sac that provides all their nutrition. Photo courtesy Derek Smith.

According to Cross, “it’s a cost-benefit problem.” If sturgeon raised in well water still reliably return to the rivers where they are released, the large number of fish raised at the Genoa Hatchery could be a boon to sturgeon conservation across the Great Lakes region. On the other hand, if the hatchery-raised sturgeon wander, additional streamside facilities may prove necessary to re-introduce self-sustaining sturgeon populations to target rivers. The Cass River, for example, lacks a stream-side rearing facility and may potentially benefit from one.

To better assess the costs and benefits of each rearing strategy, biologists at the Toledo Zoo, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Ohio Division of Wildlife, Michigan State University, and the University of Toledo will test whether the two rearing-strategies impact how sturgeon return to rivers. In the summer of 2022, the biologists collected eggs and sperm from the same spawning adults in the St. Clair River, where healthy, self-sustaining populations exist today. Fertilized eggs were created by mixing sperm and egg, then half of the eggs were raised at the Genoa Hatchery while the other half were raised at the Toledo Zoo’s stream-side facility.

Once the fish were fingerling size, the biologists equipped them with PIT tags. The tags are similar to the microchips implanted into pet dogs and cats and encode an identification number linked to information about where an individual fish was released and in which facility it was raised. Whenever a released sturgeon is recaptured, scanning its PIT tag will allow biologists to identify how many fish from each rearing facility returned to the Maumee River to spawn

Both institutions have partnered to release sturgeon into the Maumee River in this manner since 2018, so the oldest fish released in this program are only 4 years old. The team must wait until the first of the released sturgeon mature eight to twenty-three years from now before they get their answers.

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