The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Red Lake Nation and the White Earth Nation recently completed a lake sturgeon egg take operation along the Rainy River in Minnesota. In previous years, lake sturgeon eggs were sourced through Rainy River First Nations in Ontario, Canada.
The sturgeon eggs are now at the USFWS National Fish hatcheries in Genoa, Wisconsin, and Valley City, North Dakota, where they will be reared to fingerling size to support DNR and tribal stocking efforts in lakes and rivers throughout the Red River Basin in Minnesota.
Over-harvesting, dam construction and water quality decline decimated lake sturgeon populations throughout Minnesota. Historical accounts suggest that lake sturgeon were abundant until the late 1800s. They were extirpated from the Red River Basin by the mid-1900s and there was little chance that the population could recover on its own.
“Stocking efforts and dam modification projects to improve fish passage are key components to support recovery efforts in the Red River Basin,” said Matt Skoog, Baudette area fisheries supervisor, who is leading the egg take effort for the DNR.
Discussions that began in the 1980s led to a collaborative sturgeon recovery effort among the DNR, North Dakota, South Dakota, USFWS, Rainy River First Nations, Red Lake Nation and White Earth Nation. DNR lake sturgeon stocking began in 1997 when the DNR relocated sturgeon from the Rainy River to Detroit Lake and Otter Tail River, followed by initiation of a 20-year stocking program in conjunction with White Earth and Red Lake nations in 2001 and 2008, respectively.
“Since the early 2000s, the DNR, along with its partners, has stocked more than one-half million lake sturgeon fingerlings in the Red River Basin,” said Nick Kludt, DNR Red River fisheries specialist. “Survey results and angler reports suggest that populations are meeting initial recovery goals and lake sturgeon now inhabit much of the basin.”
Sturgeon grow slowly and can live to be more than 150 years old. The Minnesota state record sturgeon was six-and-a-half feet long when caught and released.
The DNR plans to transition management focus away from intensive stocking efforts to monitoring populations in the coming years. During the next phase of restoration, priority will be placed on targeted stocking efforts on rivers within the basin, identifying spawning locations, evaluating the ability of populations to self-sustain and continuing efforts to remove barriers to fish passage.
“With improved connectivity, the maturing sturgeon population will be able to access historic spawning areas and hopefully, reproduce naturally,” Kludt said. “Future dam modifications, along with targeted stocking and population monitoring, will further promote the success of lake sturgeon recovery efforts.”