Native Sturgeon Returning to Upstate Waterways



The waters of Oneida Lake have long been a destination for fishermen in Upstate New York. Fishermen come to try their hand at catching Walleye, Bass, and Perch. But a much larger fish could someday be the ultimate prize in this body of water, and others throughout Upstate New York. The story comes from Ray Biggs with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. It aired on Northeast Public Radio.

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It’s a beautiful late-summer morning in Sylvan Beach, New York. A team of researchers from the US Geological Survey’s Tunison research lab, is taking full advantage of the weather. Packed into a small aluminum boat loaded with gear and several buckets, the group heads out on Fish Creekto check gill nets that were set 24 hours earlier.

“Carp, 735…. 735 on the carp,” says Mark Chalapinicki, calling out measurements before tossing the fish back.

 Surveying the many species of fish that call the creek, and nearby Oneida lake home is part of the job, but there’s one fish that they’re seeking above all else. They’ve struck out on the first three nets of the day, but not on the fourth.

“Oh yes, oh yes, oh yeah, we got a baby! You take priority. Woohoo, now we can get excited!”

They’ve caught an 18 inch lake sturgeon around 2 years old.It’sthe third naturally reproduced sturgeon caught in New York State since efforts began to save the fish that remains virtually unchanged since prehistoric times.

“Having a fish like that around like that that is so primitive is amazing. Their relatives are all fossils in the natural history museum,” says Dr. Dawn Dittman, a USGS research ecologist who
is one of the three members of the crew that caught the prized fish.  The torpedo shaped Lake Sturgeon is one of the largest freshwater fish to inhabit New York waters, with fully grown adults typically spanning up to 5 feet in length. They also live a LONG time—it’s not uncommon for them to live over 100 years.  

But there are hardly any left, and even fewer able to reproduce.Dr. Randy Jackson, a Senior Research Associate at Cornell University’s Shackleton Point field station, saysthat it wasn’t always that way.

“The major sturgeon populations in New York State historically were in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario and their associated tributaries, presumably quite abundant and actually supported commercial fisheries, particularly in Lake Erie.”

 In the late 1800s, a market developed for Smoked Sturgeon, as well as Caviar, a delicacy made from their eggs. Jackson says while the Sturgeon fishery was a great economic asset, its commercial value ultimately proved to be its downfall, says Jackson.

“They suddenly became the most valuable commercial fish in the waters, and were overfished dramatically, with four million pounds or so per year taken out of the great lakes. They mature late, so they’re quite easy to overfish and within twenty to thirty years the fishery collapsed.

The good news for Sturgeon is that help is on the way. Collaborative efforts between Cornell, the USGS and the New York DEC are beginning to show results.  Sturgeon were stocked from 1994 to 2004, in a number of the state’s lakes and rivers. Some must be reproducing, because the fish caught recently—two on Fish Creek and one on the Oswegatchie River– are too young to be stocked fish. Jackson says it’s a sign the program is working.

“It’s a real breakthrough. Of course the objective of any restoration program and the state’s ultimate objective with this program is to establish sustainable populations so, you don’t want to have to maintain sturgeon by stocking year in and year out,” he says.

If the population can sustain itself, it might someday give rise to a new sport fishery. Sturgeon are a large part of Wisconsin’s over 2 billion dollar sport fishing industry, and are so highly valued that volunteers guard the spawning streams to protect from poachers. The fish’s remarkable size and strong fightcould make it a target for anglers in New York. Just ask John Kennedy. He’s casting off the Sylvan Beach pier.

“I had one on the line last year… I got close enough to see what it was after around a half hour, and then he was gone… sliced my line, and I was using fifty pound test,” Kennedy says.

The process of restoring the species is tedious, with the maturation process taking fifteen years at least. The ecosystem has survived for years without them, so why make all this effort?

“l\Lake sturgeon is considered by some to be a sentinel species for measuring the health of the waterways and the lakes,” says Dittman. “If lake sturgeon are present it is felt that things are going in a very positive direction.

Meanwhile, USGS research technician Mark Chalpinicki says it’s about balancing out negative human activity with the natural environment.

“We pretty much removed them in the early 1900s, and it’s our job to bring them back.”

While the project shows signs of progress, don’texpect to see Oneida Lake caviar anytime soon. But someday, it could be a destination for fisherman looking for a fight.