Lake Sturgeon

Acipenser fulvescens

  • One of the oldest species, once ranged widely throughout the Great Lakes but vulnerable to overharvest — now threatened and rare.
  • Grow very slowly but may reach eight feet in length, weigh nearly 300 pounds and can live from 55-150 years.
  • Efforts to restore this species to former prominence continue.

Life History

Lake sturgeon are nearshore fish that live at water depths of 15 to 30 feet. They feed along lake bottoms, eating a variety of small animals including snails, crustaceans, aquatic insects, mussels, and small fish. Most lake sturgeon caught today weigh between 30 and 100 pounds and grow 3 to 6 feet in length.

Lake Sturgeon Life Cycle
Lake Sturgeon Life Cycle Graphic (PDF)

Lake sturgeon live longer than any other fish species in Michigan. Male lake sturgeon live an average of 55 years. Females live 80 to 150 years. Despite their long lives, sturgeon are slow to mature. It takes about 15 years for male lake sturgeon to reach reproductive maturity and 20 to 25 years for females.

In early spring, adult sturgeon enter fast flowing rivers to spawn. Female lake sturgeon spawn once every four years, each depositing millions of eggs on gravel bars. It is estimated that only about 10 to 20 percent of adult lake sturgeon within a population spawn during a given year.

Human Impacts

Lake sturgeon were historically abundant in all of the Great Lakes. They served as an important food source for many Native American tribes. When European settlers arrived in the region, sturgeon were so numerous during the spring spawning run that they were reportedly capable of capsizing fishing boats.

Nuisance Fish

Early commercial fishermen scorned sturgeon as nuisance fish that destroyed their gill nets. A single thrashing sturgeon could tangle an entire net, reducing opportunities to catch valuable lake whitefish or lake trout. People began to catch the less desirable sturgeon and destroy them in large numbers. They burned huge piles of sturgeon along the shores of the Detroit River. The oily sturgeon carcasses provided fuel for passing steam ships.

Valuable Fish

By the mid 1800s, people had found profitable uses for sturgeon. They harvested sturgeon for their meat as well as their eggs, which were made into a flavorful delicacy similar to caviar. Sturgeon swim bladders were processed to produce isinglass, a type of gelatin used in making beer and wine. Lake sturgeon became a commercially valuable resource that was soon over-harvested. In 1880, more than 4 million pounds of sturgeon were processed in Michigan, taken from Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair. By 1928, the total sturgeon harvest from all the Great Lakes fell to less than 2,000 pounds.

Threatened Fish

In addition to commercial fishing, the remaining sturgeon population faced a growing number of threats. Newly constructed dams blocked access to river spawning habitat. Other spawning locations were destroyed by sedimentation from farming and logging and increasing industrial pollution. These changes, combined with the sturgeon’s slow growth, led to its dramatic decline. The current lake sturgeon population is estimated to be 1 percent of its historic abundance in Michigan.

Habitat Restoration

Michigan prohibits commercial fishing for lake sturgeon and closely regulates sturgeon sport fishing. A limited number of sportfishing licenses are issued each year. In some areas of the state, volunteers help monitor spring spawning runs to protect sturgeon from being taken illegally. Other management efforts focus on tracking sturgeon migration and identifying the location of remaining spawning grounds. Restoration efforts involve creating and protecting sturgeon habitat to enhance spawning success.

Featured Publications

Additional Resources

Lake Sturgeon Exhibit Locations