Fishing Destinations Fighting Having Sturgeon Put on Endangered Species List | Sports Destination Management

Fishing Destinations Fighting Having Sturgeon Put on Endangered Species List

Apr 11, 2024 | By: Mary Helen Sprecher

When the word gets out that a popular gamefish might be put on the endangered species list, you can expect strong reactions from both anglers and conservationists – as well as from the sports destinations that benefit from its presence.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has until June 30 to decide if lake sturgeon should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

As might be expected, both anglers and fishing destinations are against the measure. Anglers don’t want to lose their ability to fight one of the largest and strongest fish that swims in fresh water. But conservationists say that is the least of their concerns. Among those who want sturgeon put on the endangered list are Fishable Indiana Streams for the Hoosiers, Hoosier Environmental Council and Prairie Rivers Network.

The Grand Forks Herald notes, “The upcoming deadline results from a 2018 petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity requesting that the Fish and Wildlife Service either list lake sturgeon for federal protection throughout its range or as several “Distinct Population Segments” under the Endangered Species Act. According to the Center, lake sturgeon populations in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River drainage have “declined by roughly 99% over the past century or so.”

In some places, like Minnesota, efforts to restore lake sturgeon populations have been successful; for example, there is currently a statewide catch-and-release sturgeon season and a limited harvest season on Lake of the Woods and Rainy River. But in other parts of the U.S. (25 species of the whisker-snouted fish are found across more than 20 states), populations are not nearly as robust.

The push and pull is being felt at the sports tourism level, the Herald notes, “and is especially concerning in the border country, where a healthy sturgeon population on Lake of the Woods and Rainy River is a major tourism draw, especially during the spring “shoulder season” between the end of ice fishing and the mid-May walleye opener.”

Sturgeon could become a protected speciesThe economy of various areas of Minnesota where sturgeon thrive, particularly the watersheds mentioned, as well as the St. Croix River and other sturgeon fisheries across the state, would suffer.

Spectrum News 1 states that the two-week season on the Lake Winnebago system, which opened on February 10, has a roughly $4 million dollar impact in areas around the lakes.

“Sturgeon fishing brings in welcomed capital to resorts, fishing guides, bait stores, gas stations, grocery stores, bars, restaurants, hardware stores and the list goes on,” notes the website for Lake of the Woods. “When someone travels to fish for sturgeon and stays overnight in Minnesota, for every dollar spent on lodging, there is typically a 5-7 time multiplier as far as the overall impact to the economy.  This would be lost.”

The website also expresses strong sentiments against federal management of the sturgeon, noting that all fisheries, including those in Minnesota, would be lumped into the same category and “If this would happen, the many very sharp fisheries managers and biologists within the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources who have worked tirelessly for years bringing back the lake sturgeon population would lose all control as far as managing the sturgeon in Minnesota. Other states would lose control managing sturgeon in their state as well.”

Lawmakers are making efforts to block the listing. In Wisconsin, for example, notes WPR News, “U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher announced a bill he’s introducing that would exempt Wisconsin from any listing of lake sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act. He was joined by U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, state Rep. Ty Bodden, R-Hilbert, state Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, and local sturgeon enthusiasts.

The announcement comes after a bipartisan group of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month, urging the agency to exempt the state from any potential listing. The letter was signed by Gallagher, Grothman, the rest of the state’s House Republicans, Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson.”

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Congressman Pete Stauber posted a video from the shores of the Rainy River at the Royal Dutchman.  In his video, he made it clear he supports the MN DNR managing the species, not the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

“Right now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering putting the Sturgeon on the endangered species list.  That is not necessary,” Stauber stated. “The State of Minnesota, the DNR is doing a really good job of managing the lake sturgeon, and that’s where it should stay.”

Sturgeons, some of the longest-lived fish in freshwater, are slow-growing and elusive, making them a bucket-list fish for anglers.

“It’s one of the oldest species in the world; it’s been around since the time of the dinosaurs,” Dan Krause, director of national conservation for the Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada, told reporters at Great Lakes Today. “They have persisted through lots of changes but are struggling with humans.”

Overharvesting (sturgeon are prized for their caviar) and a loss of habitat led to a marked decline in the population of the species. Lake sturgeon were once abundant in the Great Lakes area and while the largest population can still be found there, it is estimated to be less than one percent of its historical numbers. Restoration efforts have helped but have not brought the fish back to what conservationists believe are stable numbers.

Not helping the arguments of responsible anglers are the examples of those who are illegally targeting the sturgeon by out-of-season fishing and by not trying to release the fish. A report in Field & Stream stated that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) had announced the successful prosecution of a poaching incident involving giant white sturgeon, with suspects holding onto fish ranging in size from five feet to more than seven feet long, as well as an additional 5-foot specimen that was found on a boat. According to the ODFW, the 7-plus-footer the men captured was “likely more than 80 years old.” The agency was able to successfully charge and prosecute the group, including one felony conviction that resulted in jail time, fines and suspended fishing license.

As groups including the World Sturgeon Conservation Society, note, sturgeon have survived whatever killed the dinosaurs, but they have no defense against humans.

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