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 the region.
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 Creek to check gill nets that were set 24 hours earlier.
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 finally made some headway on the fourth.
They caught an 18-inch Lake Sturgeon around two years old. The third naturally reproduced sturgeon caught in New York State after 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,” says USGS research ecologist Dr. Dawn Dittman, one of the three members of the crew that caught the prized fish. “Their relatives are all fossils in the natural history museum.”
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 five feet in length. They also live a very 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, says that 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 caviar. Jackson says while the Sturgeon fishery was a great economic asset, its commercial value ultimately proved to be its downfall.
“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,” says Jackson. “They mature late, so they're quite easy to overfish.”
The good news for Sturgeon is that help is on the way. Collaborative efforts between Cornell, the USGS and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation 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,” Jackson says. “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.”
If the population can sustain itself, it might someday give rise to a new sport fishery. Sturgeon are a large part of Wisconsin’s $2 billion sportfishing industry, and are so highly valued that volunteers guard the spawning streams to protect from poachers. The fish's remarkable size and strong fight could make it a target for anglers in New York. Just ask Sylvan Beach fisherman John Kennedy:
“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 50-pound test.”
The process of restoring the species is tedious, with the maturation process taking at least fifteen years. The ecosystem has survived for years without them, so why make all this effort?
“Lake Sturgeon is considered by some to be a sentinel species for measuring the health of the waterways and the lakes, Dittman says. “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’t expect to see Oneida Lake caviar anytime soon, but, someday it could be a destination for fisherman looking for a fight.
Ray Biggs is with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College and can be found at www.nyrp-uc.org