It's taken 28 years and 140,000 stocked fish, but this year for the first time in decades Lake Superior sturgeon are reproducing naturally in their spawning grounds in the St. Louis River near Duluth. That means that the enormous effort to return the once abundant giant fish to southwest region of of Lake Superior worked.
Let me repeat. It worked.
Sturgeon caught in the Rainy River, April 22, 2010. A face only a mother -- or a biologist -- can love. The four barbels near the mouth are sensory organs used to find food. It has no teeth and its vacuum-like mouth sucks up insect larvae, worms, small fish, crayfish, clams and other small invertebrates.
Last week conservationists for the Fond Du Lac band of Chippewa found 4 tiny sturgeon fingerlings at the spawning grounds just below the Fond du Lac dam in Jay Cooke State Park.
The sturgeon, which can grow to 100 pounds or more, were once common in the lake. So common that fishermen hated them because of the damage they did to nets. So common that settlers treated them like carp -- a nuisance fish. Dams, logging, and massive pollution in the St. Louis River did the rest. The fish disappeared from the western half of the lake, as their numbers dwindled throughout..
But in the 1970's the Clean Water Act and water treatment plants did their jobs -- the water quality on the St. Louis River improved so much that the Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources decided to try an ambitious experiment in undoing the harm that humans had done. Staring in the mid-1980s they took Lake Sturgeon fingerlings from Lake Michigan and put them in the St. Louis River. They did it almost every year until 2000 -- 140,000 in all.
They didn't know if the fish would survive pollution in the Duluth Bay. They didn't know if the adult fish -- females don't spawn until they are 25-years-old -- would find their way back 26 miles up river.
Last year, with help from non-profit conservationist groups, they re-built the spawning grounds below the Fond Du Lac dam to re-create the conditions mature fish prefer -- running water, deep pools and boulders.
This year they started looking. Scientists from the DNRs, Fond Du Lac band and other groups netting for fingerlings. Last week in a broad pool just below the dam, they found them. Tiny baby sturgeon just an inch long. Happy Birthday.