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Lake sturgeon show signs of creating a self-sustaining population in Missouri

Kevin Haupt, Edward Sterling, and Jim Studdard with US Fish and Wildlife Services are on a boat at the Maple Island Boat Launch are looking for lake sturgeon larvae in a bucket. The team used nets to look for larvae attached to rocks.
Britny Cordera
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Kevin Haupt, Edward Sterling, and Jim Studdard with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, on a boat at the Maple Island Boat Launch, look for lake sturgeon eggs in a bucket. The team used nets to look for eggs attached to rocks.

A prehistoric fish that nearly went extinct in the St. Louis region more than 100 years ago is spawning in the Mississippi River near the Maple Island Access Area at the Riverlands for a second year in a row.

Consistent spawning activity of the species Acipenser fulvescens, or lake sturgeon, is the result of a 40-year reintroduction program involving the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

Lake sturgeon can grow to be over 8 feet long and can weigh as much as 800 pounds in some rare cases. Researchers say in Missouri, they can weigh up to 300 pounds. According to the Nature Conservancy, these fish migrate up to thousands of miles in the early spring and summer upriver to lay eggs.

Once abundant in the region’s big rivers, lake sturgeon were nearly driven to extinction in the early 1900s due to habitat loss and overfishing. Experts say growing and sustaining the fish would be a sign of a healthy ecosystem.

In 1984, 10 years after the State of Missouri listed lake sturgeon as an endangered species, the Department of Conservation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services started reintroducing them into the Mississippi River by stocking the river with the fish.

“It was anywhere between 2,000 and 20,000 fish that were stocked in the '80s,” said Sarah Peper, a fisheries management biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Lake Sturgeon live in the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and their tributaries. They can live more than 100 years and weigh as much as 300 pounds.
Courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation

Peper said that the control of water flow with dams along the river played a large role in the destruction of lake sturgeon habitat in Missouri. She said conservationists recognize that the Melvin Price Dam near Audubon Center at the Riverlands causes an obstruction for the fish when they are migrating.

Now, the dam is being utilized by conservationists to provide lake sturgeon the perfect spawning waters at the Mississippi-Missouri confluence.

“During times when the fish can't get through the dam, we want to make sure that they have a place suitable to spawn here,” she said.

The Melvin Price Dam near Audubon Center at Riverlands is being used to create suitable habitat for lake sturgeon spawning.
Britny Cordera
/
St. Louis Public Radio
The Melvin Price Dam near Audubon Center at Riverlands is being used to create suitable habitat for lake sturgeon spawning.

Lake sturgeon need water temperatures around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, flowing water to oxygenate their eggs and rocky shoreline so their peppercorn-size eggs can stick on to rocks.

Ryan Swearingin, a biologist for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the conditions for the fish are just right for helping lake sturgeon spawn at the confluence of Missouri and Mississippi.

“We’ve got that cobbly substrate and water flows along the shoreline here,” he said. “What we do at the Corps of Engineers is influence the velocity of the water coming through the dam to try and create the perfect flow and temperature for lake sturgeon.”

Sarah Peper a fisheries management biologist with Missouri Department of Conservation is holding a container of lake sturgeon grub. She said these fish eat invertabrates like aquatic insects and invasive snails.
Britny Cordera
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Sarah Peper, a fisheries management biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, holds a container of lake sturgeon grub. She said these fish eat invertabrates like aquatic insects and invasive snails.

By being able to open and adjust the locks and gates of the dam, conservationists are creating the best conditions for lake sturgeon spawning.

“These fish have been around for millions of years. They are a good indication of a healthier river habitat because they can live up to 120 years,” she said. “Human development nearly brought them to extinction, and we are hopefully able to turn that around."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated where lake sturgeon were spawning at the Riverlands. This story has also been updated to reflect how much the fish can weigh in Missouri and removes an inaccuracy about when the fish were last stocked.

Britny Cordera is a poet and journalist based in St. Louis and is currently serving as a newsroom intern at St. Louis Public Radio.