Once vanishing, ancient fish swims back into view
At a lonely bend on Wisconsin's Wolf River, Jane and Lloyd Merkel balance on some rocks and peer down into the tea-brown water.Skip to next paragraph
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"Look, Lloyd!" Mrs. Merkel says. "Isn't she a beauty?" A gray fish as long as a fence post swims past, its big tail making slow undulations. There are dozens and perhaps scores of the big fish in the river. They appear and disappear, rising out of the deep to nuzzle and splash in the shallows. They have spiky backs, barbed snouts, and mouths like vacuum cleaners. They are like nothing else the Merkels have ever seen.
Sturgeons are struggling to survive the world over, from the Caspian Sea in Central Asia to Chesapeake Bay and the Missouri River. Dams, pollution, and the appetite for caviar - raw sturgeon eggs - have made life difficult for a fish that has endured since the Cretaceous period, the age of dinosaurs.
But lately there have been growing efforts to protect sturgeons and, in some places, to restore them to waters where they had vanished. More people like the Merkels will start to see these striking fish for the first time.
Next month, for example, biologists from the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga plan to release several hundred young lake sturgeon into the French Broad River upstream of Knoxville as part of a long-term effort to restore the fish to the Tennessee River system.
In May, when it last released sturgeons in the French Broad, a crowd of officials and journalists gathered to watch, a measure of the attention that sturgeons are receiving in some places.
"It was quite a big event," says Chris Coco, an Aquarium biologist. "It's an example of a fish that was gone and now it's back."
Eastern Wisconsin is one of the few places where sturgeons thrive, thanks in part to the enthusiasm of ordinary people like the Merkels. Each spring, hundreds of "sturgeon guards" volunteer to spend a 12-hour shift watching over spawning areas to discourage poachers.
To aficionados, sturgeons have many charms. They have an ancient pedigree, a bizarre appearance, and immense size.
The lake sturgeon, which lives in the Mississippi River system and the Great Lakes region, is only a middling sturgeon, but it can grow to more than six feet and over 100 pounds.
Sturgeons are also long lived. In 1953, a 6-1/2-foot lake sturgeon caught in the Lake of the Woods, in Ontario, was determined to be 152 years old. It had been a fingerling during the first Jefferson administration.
Sturgeons are survivors. They live a largely hidden life, snuffling along the bottom of lakes and rivers and eating almost anything they bump into. As Fred Binkowski, a scientist at the Great Lakes Water Institute, says, "Whatever killed the dinosaurs didn't kill sturgeons."
And yet sturgeons have declined almost everywhere. The recent collapse of the Caspian Sea sturgeon, the source of most of the world's caviar, is only the best-known example. Until the 19th century, sturgeons abounded in North America, too. Native Americans depended upon them for food in the spring. Later, European Americans fed them to pigs, plowed them under as fertilizer, and burned their dried, oily carcasses as fuel in steamboats. Nineteenth-century fishermen harvested them in large numbers, and by the mid-20th century, overfishing, pollution, and dam construction had decimated sturgeons in many places.