June 01, 2019May 2019 marked the 20th year of the Sturgeon Guarding Program under the auspices of the Sturgeon For Tomorrow organization on the Upper Black River. This undertaking has proven that citizens who watch over the river have significantly reduced the poaching of these magnificent fish while helping to ensure the protection and proliferation of the species. In fact, local Conservation Officer Tim Rososhacki says, "There have been no reported incidents of poaching sturgeon in the past fifteen years."
Each spring, sturgeon migrate up the rivers to spawn at known spawning sites. At this time a large percentage of the adult population in the system are concentrated in a small area. When sturgeon are spawning along the rocky riverbanks they are fairly oblivious to nearby human activity and are susceptible to poaching.
According to Brenda Archambo, President of the Board of Directors for Sturgeon For Tomorrow (SFT), "Here we are 20 years later and continue to remain true to our mission. Two decades is a long time, relatively. Yet Lake sturgeon can live 80-150 years, so in terms of our long range strategic plan we are just nicely getting started and beginning to see the fruits of our efforts. We know that sportsmen and women care about the sturgeon here and support our program.
"However there are also dozens of volunteers who are not anglers but just want to assist in the welfare of these fish. As a result, we have been able to guard the sturgeon, leverage research on the species and educate with outreach programs. Yet all of these behemoth efforts could not continue without the collaborative efforts of different organizations, agencies and of course volunteers. SFT oversees the Sturgeon Guards. Conservation Officers and other volunteer groups are also concentrated in these areas 24 hours a day to protect the sturgeon from harm and poaching. If the poaching were left unchecked, it would reduce the population and eventually destroy the sportfishery."
Protection is vital to survival, but so too is need to repopulate the species. The 2019 Black Lake research season began in late April and usually operates until late May. The process involves Michigan State University and Michigan Department of Natural Resources researchers who capture adult Lake Sturgeon ascending the Upper Black River. As of this article, 170 had been captured during the current spawning season.
These adult fish are analyzed, weighed and implanted with a passive integrated transponder tag which will aid future management efforts. Their movements are also monitored. When these tagged fish pass by strategically placed antennas along the river, the tags notify researchers which fish came by.
According to the DNR, there have been no reported incidents of poaching sturgeon in the past fifteen years.
The current research efforts also include collecting eggs and sperm which are then transported to the Kleber Dam location which houses a nearby rearing hatchery where reproductive work begins. However, researchers are constantly focusing on factors that may contribute to reproductive success i.e. those that can be quantified by data collected from the Radio Frequency Identification antennas as mentioned, that are placed throughout the Upper Black River, including migratory patterns and sperm quality.
According to a MDNR Management Plan issued in 2016, the 30-year license for this dam and the others on the Black River was renewed in 1994 with specific direction to the licensee regarding assistance as mitigation to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' efforts to protect and enhance Lake Sturgeon in the Black River downstream of the projects.
The license requires the owner to operate the project in run-of-river mode, and to work with the MDNR to construct a Lake Sturgeon rearing facility when deemed necessary. Eventually the MDNR determined stocking was necessary to help rehabilitate the Black Lake population of Lake Sturgeon.
In 2005, a temporary streamside rearing facility was constructed near the mouth of the Upper Black River, and research concentrating on the relative fitness of Lake Sturgeon rearing in the streamside rearing facility versus those reared in a traditional hatchery was conducted. The results of this research revealed that streamside facilities were preferable to traditional hatcheries. Consequently, Tower-Kleber Limited Partnership, in consultation with the MDNR, constructed the current streamside Black River Lake Sturgeon rearing facility adjacent to Kleber Dam in time for production to begin in 2009.
Collaboration was and is needed for successful operations to thrive. In addition to the State of Michigan and tribes, Black Lake Chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow (SFT), Michigan State University, Black Lake Association, Huron Pines, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, the Northern Inland Lakes Citizens Advisory Committee, and Tower-Kleber Limited Partnership all contribute to this enormous project of guarding and maintaining the sturgeon population. As stated earlier, the mission of SFT is to assist fisheries managers in Lake Sturgeon rehabilitation, to advance education, to further other charitable, educational, and scientific objectives, and to engage in and facilitate scientific research. This group has direct interest and involvement in the current and future sturgeon fishery, rehabilitation of the population through the streamside hatchery program and efforts to restore river function, outreach and educational activities, and the Sturgeon Guarding Program.
In addition, Michigan State University has worked cooperatively to secure grants and conduct research on various aspects of Lake Sturgeon life history traits, while also rearing Lake Sturgeon for recovery efforts. Tower-Kleber Limited Partnership, under Article 406 of its current license agreement, cooperates with the MDNR in implementing sturgeon recovery through the establishment of the Upper Black River streamside hatchery.
The Black Lake Association works cooperatively with the agencies to maintain the high quality cool water fisheries of Black Lake, whether through additional stocking efforts, habitat enhancement, or information exchange. Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council organizes the volunteer lake monitoring studies crucial to understanding the changing parameters of Black Lake. The charge of the Northern Inland Lakes Citizens Advisory Committee is "to review, understand, and provide recommendations and direction into the fishery goals, objectives and management plans for lakes in the Inland Waterway and connecting waters." It is a platform for information sharing between interested citizens and managing agencies.
Dave Borgeson, Northern Lakes Huron Management Unit Supervisor, Fisheries Division of the MDNR told volunteers and researchers gathered recently overlooking the sturgeon capturing site, "This is the best sturgeon study in the United States. Look at all the efforts of so many people, groups, and agencies."
Arcahmbo reiterated her passion for saving these fish that are native to Michigan, "We have to work collaboratively with so many others. We have to do legacy work so the work we are doing now will galvanize the next generation."
Interested in the Guarding Program for next year? For more information on Sturgeon For Tomorrow memberships, camping ambassadors, and stream guards please visit their website: www.sturgeonfortomorrow.org or call 231-625-2770.