Thursday, September 18th, 2014 was a historic day for Big Stone Lake, near the Minnesota River headwaters. For the first time in almost 70 years, lake sturgeon, a prehistoric fish from a 135 million year old family, would be cavorting about its waters again. Habitat degradation and intense overfishing in the late 19th and early 20th century depleted the populations of this naturally abundant native fish. In 1946, the last known specimen in Big Stone Lake, the headwaters of the Minnesota River, washed ashore, dead.
Now, 68 years later, a partnership spearheaded by Norm Haukos at the MN DNR fisheries office in Ortonville has brought lake sturgeon back to Big Stone Lake, and on September 18th, 4,000 fingerlings were released into Big Stone Lake and its tributaries. Minnesota and South Dakota have worked together on this 10-year project from the outset. Another critical partner was the state of Wisconsin, one of the best states in the nation to be a lake sturgeon. In fact, Wisconsin Sturgeon Guards, which watch over the fish during their vulnerable spawning periods, are treated with high honor. To share their bounty, Wisconsin freely supports restoration efforts in other states. Haukos said that traveling there to extract the eggs and milt from spawning sturgeons was a highlight of his career, and he expressed a deep gratitude to the state for the support it provided “out of the goodness of their hearts.”
After the eggs and milt were collected from Wisconsin rivers, Genoa National Fish Hatchery raised the sturgeon until they were ready to be released. This year, Genoa was so successful that there are extra fingerlings–the Ortonville Fisheries office will likely be able to release another 2,000-2,500 fingerlings into Big Stone Lake later this fall. Haukos says that the key to this collaborative partnership to bring lake sturgeon back to the region has been their shared goal.
Developing a stable population of lake sturgeon in Big Stone Lake will be a long process, with 4000 tagged sturgeon released every year for 20 years, until a stable breeding population is established. Since female sturgeons don’t reproduce until their mid-twenties (and can live for another 120 years after that!), the fingerlings released this year won’t begin reproducing naturally for another 20+ years.
When asked what has changed so that Big Stone Lake could now support a stable population of lake sturgeon, Haukos pointed to a great shift in the 1960’s and 1970’s, saying that if we had continued on the course we were on, Big Stone Lake would now be a veritable “cesspool.” He gave his thanks to the organization Citizens for Big Stone Lake, which has worked for years to improve this regionally important water body. Historically, five communities once used Big Stone Lake as their discharge point for raw sewage. Furthermore, ranchers in the area often let their cattle in the ravines that fed the lake, contributing to water contamination from the livestock. However, the most important change has likely been the removal of dams throughout the Minnesota River and its tributaries.
Sturgeon are mobile fish, returning to shallow, upstream waters to spawn, and they require uninterrupted stretches of rivers and lake tributaries. While the fingerlings have only been reintroduced to the Big Stone Lake area, the dam at the mouth of Big Stone Lake is often left open for free water flow. The intent is that these fish will travel throughout the Minnesota River Basin, repopulating the entire river. Haukos says that enough dams have been removed to support these fish and their need for access to spawning grounds.
This is a success story, a story of gradual but persistent change, a story of collaboration, and a story of interconnectivity. We are proud to tell such stories about the Minnesota River Basin.
The video news story was from KDIO 1350 AM, and the video was created by Vicki Oakes.
Blog post by Ariel Herrod, Water Program Coordinator.