The sturgeon is an ancient fish. They have evolved very little since they appeared about 200 million years ago.
In spite of their distinctive looks and massive size (sturgeon can grow to be nine feet long and may weigh more than 300 pounds), sturgeon are often called "cute," "friendly," and "gentle."
The sturgeon is truly a river fish; it needs the rocky, gravelly bottom and swift flow of a river to spawn. But it likes to swim in big water too, if it can get to it.
For the resident sturgeon of the Menominee River, the border-forming river between Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, getting to big water -- Lake Michigan -- is a big problem.
There are five dams between the lake and the sturgeon's historic spawning grounds at -- you guessed it... Sturgeon Falls, about 82 miles upstream from Lake Michigan.
For the sturgeon to thrive, they have to be able to make the round trip from lake to home river and back again. But they can't without some help from us. Just like salmon, sturgeon have a "home river" they return to, to spawn. But unlike salmon, they don't go there to die, and they are not athletic like salmon. Sturgeon can't jump up fish ladders.
So we have to build a way for them to get around the hydro electric dams on the Menominee River so they can make that round trip, from river spawning grounds, to Lake Michigan, and back again.
The River Alliance, along with our natural resource agency and hydro dam partners, received a grant of $1.5 million from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and a grant of the same amount from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to develop a means for the ancient lake sturgeon to make their way up- and downstream around two hydro dams on the Menominee River (the one that forms the border between Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan).
The idea is if you build it, they will pass. “It” is essentially, an elevator at one dam on the Menominee so the sturgeon can migrate upstream and return to their spawning grounds. (Sturgeon don’t jump, so we don’t build fish ladders for them in Wisconsin like they do in Washington for salmon.) The downstream passage device is essentially a rack in the water above the dam to direct the sturgeon to a tube that will pass them through the dam and on downstream.
Our partners include the natural resource agencies of Michigan and Wisconsin, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the dams’ owner, North American Hydro. Studies have been conducted for years at these dams to figure how to attract sturgeon to the places where they will be passed around the dams, and the grants will allow us to build the passage devices. Biologists estimate there are only 3,000 sturgeon of breeding age in all of Lake Michigan, down from an estimated two million of them at the turn of the century. Their population will not expand unless they can reach spawning habitat. The Menominee River, likely the birthplace of many old sturgeon in Lake Michigan, is ideal habitat, but the dams block their way. Find out more about sturgeon here.
In July 2009, the River Rat blogged about the studies conducted to attract sturgeon to the passage devices. Click here to read the archived blog and watch the videos of passing sturgeon.