Michigan's sturgeon season lasted just 78 minutes as Great Lake's population rebounds

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More than 400 fisherman converged on Black Lake in Cheboygan County last weekend for sturgeon hunting season.

It was over in 78 minutes. And that still wasn't a record for its shortest season.

“We've had faster seasons, (this year's) was no surprise,” said Dave Borgeson, a fisheries unit supervisor with the DNR. “With that number of anglers on the ice, with water clarity being what it was, it's not surprising at all.”

In 2017, the season only lasted 65 minutes. And in 2016, it was even shorter, only taking an hour.

The fisherman don't have a long time to harvest the fish. The Department of Natural Resources limits the season to only five days if anglers don't catch the year's established quota. And that quota isn't large either - capping out at six this year. Which begs the question, why do hundreds of people travel across the Great Lakes region to hunt a fish they probably won't catch?

Officials dedicated to the sturgeon's conservation say anglers' obsession with long-lived fish is rooted in tradition that extends across the state.

“They're charismatic. They're just awesome fish. They're like dinosaurs,” said Brenda Archambo, who runs the Black Lake chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow. “(and hunting them) is deeply entrenched in the culture here. There might be two, three or sometimes four generations of sturgeon anglers here (Cheboygan County).”

The lake sturgeon is an old fish species. Archambo even calls it the “Elder statesmen of Michigan's fish species” because they live so long, with some growing more than 100 years old. It also used to be an abundantly present fish in Michigan in the 1800s. Despite such longevity, sturgeon is a keystone species, meaning it has an integral role in the ecosystem, of which several other species depend on.

However, they can't start breeding until around age 20, which means any obstruction of that process can take a long time to rectify. Compound that barrier with commercial over-fishing, their reputation as a nuisance, the dividing of their breeding sites with man-made dams and poaching has reduced their population to 1 percent of its pre-settlement numbers, according to the Michigan Sea Grant.

These alarming numbers catalyzed the state to develop a rehabilitation strategy to save the species. Unfortunately, that would ban anyone from hunting the species in any capacity, which wasn't easy news for individuals like Archambo to hear, who didn't see the annual hunting of the species as the problem.

“We're like 'that's not right,'” Archambo said. “'Why are we going to close a season and not do anything about the poaching?' We advocated to save the sport because a lot of the anglers were the ones who stand watch in the spring time to protect them.”

What emerged from that conflict was a compromise between the shepherds who looked over the fish and the officials who enforced the efforts to save the population. That was 20 years ago. Since then, the population has rebounded, embodying what some say is a “conservation success story.”

“No organization has been an island,” said Jim Felgenauer, the president of the St. Clair/Detroit River Sturgeon for Tomorrow chapter. “There are just tons of people involved in the sturgeon population.”

The estimated population for adult Sturgeon in 1997 was about 550. That number has doubled to more than 1,100. The St. Clair River/Lake St. Clair water body encompasses the largest population of sturgeon in the Great Lakes, with 2012 numbers at more than 15,000 fish. While Felgenauer said those numbers have largely remained the same in the last 20 years, in 2018 he heard the first visible tangible evidence that those efforts are starting to work.

“I was up at a Black Lake banquet last year, and they said they had their first natural return of a stocked fish spawn in the Black River,” said Felgenauer.

The first sign of progress that stemmed from efforts that began more than two decades ago. A welcome sight for conservationists, it's the product of several nonprofits, research groups and governmental agencies working together. While no tactic to help the population has been unique, many of them have involved removing dams, building spawning reefs and increasing education and awareness about the fish.

Felgenauer said that awareness campaign comes in the form of events like the Blue Water Sturgeon Festival. The same happens in northern Michigan, with the Shivaree festival celebration. Both are used as educational components to help teach people more about the fish.

Progress doesn't mean accomplished however. Numbers from a 2012 report showed the sturgeon population was still declining in more than half of their known habitats. Due to the price tag on sturgeon fish eggs, which can go for $100 an oz, poaching remains a problem. Which is why legislation has been introduced to raise the penalty for poaching a sturgeon from $500 to $5,000.

Fines for poaching bears or moose are already go into the thousands, said Archambo. “They should be that high for sturgeon too.”

The bill has been referred to the Committee on Natural Resources in the House legislature, with the most recent action happening early last January.