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    Incorporating environmental flows through the Sustainable Rivers Program to support lake sturgeon spawning continues to prove successful

    Lake sturgeon sampling on the Mississippi River

    Photo By Janet Meredith | This lake sturgeon, captured for monitoring and released, is an impressive dinosaur of...... read more read more



    Story by Janet Meredith 

    U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District - MVS

    The lake sturgeon, an ancient whisker-snouted fish from the Cretaceous period, is tied to present-day conservation efforts on the Mississippi River at the Melvin Price Locks and Dam in West Alton, Missouri.

    Despite their name, lake sturgeon, also known as “rubbernose or rock” sturgeon, are found in rivers and lakes. Evolving 150 million years ago, long before the evolution of the T-Rex and the other dinosaurs, they have scale-less skin and diamond-shaped plates along their back. Mature lake sturgeon live up to their unique legacy by reaching eight feet in length, weighing more than 200 pounds, and living over 100 years, making them extraordinarily impressive fish. These giants of the fish world are sustained from a diet of snails, crayfish, mussels, and aquatic insects found with barbel sensors and their suction-like toothless mouths.

    Since 2015 the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and local partners, have actively monitored lake sturgeon by utilizing hydraulic modeling to provide optimum spawning habitat at the Melvin Price Locks and Dam and began working with the Sustainable Rivers Program in 2020. Located at river mile 200.78 in West Alton, Missouri, the dam consists of two lock chambers and nine tainter gates. Currently, tainter gates #8 and #9 are being managed by the Water Control Office to improve flows critical to spawning. Recent observations have again noted successful spawning at the Melvin Price Locks and Dam.

    The partnership with the Missouri Department of Conservation allows for capturing, tagging, and monitoring fish species while close communication with recreational users provides information and observations about spawning. This collaboration paired with techniques adopted by water control managers allows for the operationalization of environmental flows. Proper substrate, water temperature, and the tainter gate modifications during the spawning season, mimic ideal flows, allowing for annual spawning and noticeable sturgeon eggs found on rocks along the shoreline.

    “Work on the Mississippi River has proved that existing dams can be used as a tool to gain environmental benefit,” said Liam Wallace, Water Control Manager, St. Louis District. “Given the documented and continued decline of freshwater species, it is important that programs like Sustainable Rivers work to apply that strategy for as much of the nation’s water infrastructure as possible.”

    The Ojibwa people, one of the largest tribal populations among Native Americans, called lake sturgeon "nah ma," meaning King of Fishes. They pursued them for meat, skin, oil, and waterproofing material. The name sturgeon adapted from the Old English word “styrian or stirian,” which means to move, be or become active or busy, correlates to this species ability to travel long distances and cause quite a spectacle during spawning season. European settlers who pushed westward in the 1800s traded with the Native Americans for dried sturgeon to eat. However, the species large size and habits competed with fishermen using nets to catch other game species. The sturgeon became viewed as a monstrous trash fish that only got in the way because they tore through their nets. Their large size made them a burden and when some realized they could sell sturgeon eggs as caviar, overharvesting led to their population demise. While lake sturgeon populations have been sustained in some states, habitat degradation from the combination of pollution, construction of dams and other flood control measures has taken its toll resulting in the highly migratory lake sturgeon landing on the endangered species list in Illinois and Missouri and a candidate for federal listing.

    In 2015, it was discovered that the lake sturgeon were spawning on the west bank of the Melvin Price Locks and Dam tail-water. This was the first confirmed sturgeon spawning site in Missouri, and biologists grew excited that the species could be recovered. Since then, federal and State personnel working with the district’s water control managers to monitor river velocity, temperature, and substrate. They rely on local anglers to provide information about spawning activity, grouping, cruising, porpoising as well as note lake sturgeon sightings. At the same time, the Missouri Department of Conservation monitors tagged fish and populations to understand their behavior.

    Biologists place baited trot lines in key areas below the Melvin Price Locks and Dam to sample fish and check for Passive Integrated Transponder tags implanted into the fish. Data collected on species collected using catch and release procedures indicate migratory patterns, growth, and species. Minor surgery is performed on mature lake sturgeon placing tracking devices in their abdominal cavity. Tracking paired with management techniques of the Sustainable Rivers Program to implement environmental flows has resulted in other areas adopting this type of strategy.

    “Sharing the information, we have learned with anglers and boaters is key to building a shared commitment to protecting the lake sturgeon for future recreational users,” said Wildlife Biologist, Ryan Swearingin, St. Louis District. “Moving forward, it is vital that lessons learned by Sustainable Rivers be broadly integrated into operational practices for all pertinent Corps water resources infrastructure."

    The St. Louis District actively shares a strategic lake sturgeon public information campaign with signage, event information tables, and a display at the National Great Rivers Museum in Alton, Illinois. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers is committed to preserving this ancient fish and educating the users about the difficulty faced and measures needed to ensure the lake sturgeons’ reproductive traits are understood and efforts are continued to improve habitat.

    Soon, the Sustainable Rivers Program will add a live camera feed placed at the Melvin Price Locks and Dam to monitor sturgeon spawning and foster appreciation by sharing this rare occurrence with public viewers. Currently, acoustic receivers and transmitters are located on the Salt River in Missouri to monitor lake sturgeon spawning. Flows are regulated through the Mark Twain Lake reregulation dam by Sustainable Rivers strategies to benefit fish populations.

    “The St. Louis District is extremely proud of the success and has found so much value in the Sustainable Rivers Program,” stated Biologist, Justin Garrett. Managing velocities has allowed for successful spawns for the past three years at the Melvin Price Locks and Dam and we are still able to manage our dam for navigation while enhancing riverine habitat."

    By utilizing the scientific framework of this project, water resource planners will be able to balance the human benefits from reservoirs, dams, and infrastructure with the ecological needs of the environment. This successful partnership and management strategy enhances the lake sturgeon species and could also expand to include other U. S. Army Corps of Engineers dams nationwide. Through continuous public outreach efforts, stakeholders will become more engaged with the Sustainable Rivers Program and this charismatic creature to ensure both will continue to be a part of the Mississippi River ecosystem for future generations.


    Date Taken: 04.17.2024
    Date Posted: 04.17.2024 16:41
    Story ID: 468782

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