Last Tuesday our research crew (Brandon, Bailey, and I) made a trip down to MDC’s Lost Valley Hatchery. Our goal was to assist with the fall stocking effort of Lake Sturgeon in Missouri. When we walked through the open garage doors into the main production room we found ourselves on the floor of a veritable fish assembly line. Biologists worked at stations each completing a simple task with efficiency that would have made Henry Ford proud. The purpose of this assembly line wasn’t to build cars or electronics to stock in showrooms and on store shelves, but to tag baby Lake Sturgeon to stock in the Osage and Gasconade rivers.
On the cuteness scale baby Lake Sturgeon rank somewhere between the Puppy Bowl and a tiny sloth taking a nap. Their long spade-shaped snouts turned ever so slightly upward at the tip. Their camo colored exterior specifically evolved to help them blend into the rocky bottoms of the streams they are born in to. Their five rows of sharp scutes discourage most hungry bass and catfish from trying to gobble them up. And there were 12 runways chock full of the things.
Like the migratory adults these fingerlings were already quite the travelers and you couldn’t blame them for being a little homesick. They started out as eggs obtained from adults in the Yellow River way up in Wisconsin. They were shipped down to Missouri where hatchery staff provided them with plenty of tender loving care to ease the transitions feeding them bloodworms, maintaining clean water and preventing disease.
The main job of the volunteer crews was to make sure Lake Sturgeon received two tags. At the first workstation biologists reached down into the water grab a sturgeon. Then using a scalpel they would scrape off the 9th spine or scute on the fish’s right side. The process was quick and relatively painless for the fish. Think of it like getting your nails trimmed. The marked fish was tossed into another tank to await transport to station #2.
At workstation #2, each Lake Sturgeon received a coded wire tag. When one worker had the needle in position another pushed a button on a machine to inject a 2 mm surgical steel tag into the fish’s back. This little piece of wire can be detected with a metal detecting wand, like the ones security folks use sometimes at airports. The positioning of this wire, more specifically what scute it is located under, will tell biologists what year it was stocked if they should encounter it in the future. This information can be used to estimate growth and survival in the population. The Sturgeon are tagged twice in case one of the marks is marks is obscured over time (sturgeon can lose other scutes or the coded wire tag may fall out).
At the end of the day, while a hungry crew gorged on grilled burgers and hotdogs, hatchery staff scooped up the Sturgeon in nets and hoisted them into the tank on a hatchery truck. A couple hours later they would be shot out of a hose and be swimming free.
The outpouring of volunteers who showed up to see off the 5,000-6,000 fingerling Lake Sturgeon epitomizes how Lake Sturgeon recovery is a team effort. My work on movement and habitat selection by Lake Sturgeon being just one tiny component. Led and organized by our “foreman”, MDC Lake Sturgeon recovery biologist Travis Moore, we can continue to make progress in bringing this species back from the brink of extinction in the state. Even if it is just reporting and releasing Lake Sturgeon you catch, or practicing good land use practices that keep our water clean, like on the assembly line, each of us can have a small, but crucial, role to play.
The natural history of the Osage River is epitomized by one concept: movement. The battle for the soul of the river has been based on whether it should be a thoroughfare of navigation, a vast pool for recreation, or a corridor for migration. Navigation and recreation, those are human uses, and to attain them you need engineers and tons of rock, concrete, and steel placed strategically to tame the river. Migration, on the other hand, is for the fishes. It was the default state of the river before Anglo-Americans displaced the Osage Indians and settled the river valley. Looking back at the early history of the Osage River and its management we can better understand the current state of the ecosystem and how one mode of movement won out.
When it comes to fish passage in rivers, dams can either be walls or hurdles. Walls, keep things out and are completely impassible in the upstream direction. These are the high-wall dams that are built for hydropower or flood control. The ones that impound large reservoirs lined with houses, docks, and businesses. Hurdles, are impediments but are not necessarily impassible to fish. It may take a little more effort or time waiting for the right conditions, but strong swimming fish can get past them. The Osage is, at least from a Sturgeon or Paddlefish’s perspective, is cursed with both.
Building Hurdles for Navigation
Everyone from Merriwether Lewis to the Osage Indians had realized that the Osage was a poor river for commercial navigation. The blithe optimism of engineers and their philosophy of “river improvement,” meant that reshaping the Osage into a conduit for barge travel from Bonnots Mill to the Kansas Border was worth a try. The first, and save for numerous rock dikes and training structures scattered around the river, the last major attempt at accomplishing this was Lock and Dam #1. Lock and Dam#1 was is currently located just upstream of the confluence of the Osage and Maries rivers around 12.1 miles upstream of the Missouri River. NO. 1 was built in 1895 to create slack-water navigation channels in the Osage River by raising the water level upstream to allow barges to ascend an estimated 98 rocky riffles in the river. The Army Corps of Engineers quoted a cost of $187,244 but by the time all was said and done, the cost had ballooned to $417,500. Common trade items mentioned in the report were things like nails, salt, lumber and pork. A great share of this was lumber which is often easier to simply float down an unobstructed, swift-flowing river. Plans for a series of locks and dams to make the river more navigable were discontinued by the 1920’sIn 1951 L&D 1, no longer useful for much of anything was sold along with the surrounding land and buildings for a meager $10,000.
Building Walls for Recreation
In the 1920’s investors began thinking about the construction of large reservoirs that would put an end to the dream of an Osage navigable by people and fish. By 1904 congress had officially classified the river above Warsaw as unnavigable, paving the way for hydroelectric development. In 1931, Union Electric built Bagnell Dam and Lake of the Ozarks. The privately owned dam which is maintained today by Amren UE generates hydroelectric power. Bagnell Dam inundated 84 square miles of river valley including the whole town of Linn Creek, MO. In 1979, a second dam was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers for flood control further upstream to create Truman Lake.
After a slow start, Lake of the Ozarks has become a tourist and vacation hotspot in the Midwest. The Osage left behind a legacy of steamboat travel and towering bluffs over churning waters and embracing a future of luxury yachts, waterskiing, and Netflix dramas starring Jason Bateman. Recreation has firmly supplanted, navigation, and migration as king of the Osage.
Implications for Lake Sturgeon
Lock and Dam #1 is a hurdle for many fish species including Lake Sturgeon and Paddlefish on seasonal migrations. Neither species can bypass Bagnell or Truman Dam. Non-self sustaining populations of Paddlefish are stocked throughout the watershed including in Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Reservoir. Lake Sturgeon were believed to have been extirpated from the Osage upstream of Bagnell until a resident captured a photo of a Lake Sturgeon swimming near their dock in Lake of the Ozarks in 2017. Whether this fish was introduced by anglers or is a part of a remnant population that survived after impoundment is not known.
A big theme of my research is to determine what effect the hurdles and walls have on Lake Sturgeon and their recovery in Missouri. Through tracking their movements over the next 4 years we will have a better idea of how they behave in response to unnatural flow patterns and barriers. For instance, we have designed our tracking schedules and stationary receiver deployment locations to be able to identify roughly the time at which a Lake Sturgeon passes Lock and Dam #1. We can relate that to water levels which may allow us to make flow recommendations to improve passage success during key times of the year such as during spring migrations.
No one really knows how far Lake Sturgeon historically swam upstream the Osage in their quest to spawn. Their close relative, the Paddlefish which pre-impoundment had one of its largest populations in the world in the Osage River, required gravelly shoals upstream of the Truman Dam. This has left the Paddlefish utterly dependent on artificial stocking to sustain populations. Our fingers are crossed that Lake Sturgeon are less picky and will still be able to spawn on one of the many shallow rocky areas that still exist downstream of Bagnell Dam.
Recently things have been pretty quiet around the Lock and Dam. We have had few passages since late spring. However, during a fairly low flow level an intrepid young sturgeon named Sidney made the leap downstream over the dam. I say leap, because that was exactly what it must have been. The fish would have encountered a fairly large drop whether it passed through the lock chamber or over the dam itself. What cued Sidney in this downstream movement? We don’t know? Opportunities to pass back up will be rare during the typically lower flows of fall and winter. If we presume the sturgeon knows this and is ditching the upper river for the time being, perhaps it is significant.
You have to wonder if like a phantom limb, today’s sturgeon can still sense the tinglings of the severed upstream habitats. Will Lake Sturgeon congregate below these barriers on their spring migrations, or will they improvise and find new places to spawn. Perhaps today’s adult Lake Sturgeon population, most of which were Wisconsin Lake Winnebago strain fish, have no memory of those historic spawning grounds and make do with what they have in the lower river. The hurdles and walls in the Osage aren’t going anywhere anytime soon and hopefully t these barriers to movement won’t prove to be major barriers to conservation success.
Much of the historical information in this article was gathered from Leland & Crystal Payton’s outstanding and beautifully published book on Osage River History titled: Damming the Osage, the conflicted story of Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Reservoir.
Human personality traits are often presented as dichotomies. You can get online, take a short test, and within minutes know if you are an extrovert or an introvert, a thinker or a feeler, a judger or a perceiver, and the list goes on. After about two months of tracking we are learning that Lake Sturgeon can be divided into two major categories: the movers and the stayers.
Some sturgeon just can’t seem to sit still for long. Adventurous sturgeon like Richard, Joe, Sigurd. Sigurd, named after one of my favorite nature writers and explorer of Canadian glacial lakes Sigurd Olson, was tagged back in 2015 by the Missouri Department of Conservation. Sigurd moved further upstream than any of our Sturgeon and came within a few miles of bumping his snout into Bagnell Dam in June. Over the past two months, Sigurd has moved at least 81.8 miles. And since it was tagged the total is at least twice that distance. Richard and Joe were Sturgeon we tagged this year. They quickly recovered from the tag implantation procedure and made significant upstream and downstream runs totaling at least 103 and 82 miles respectively. What is driving the restlessness in these fish remains unknown, but it may be related to characteristics of the individuals — our most mobile Sturgeon have been 20-30 lb males— and environmental conditions — sustained high flow releases from Bagnell Dam to combat upstream flooding gave way to lower summertime flows by mid June and as a result our big movers have transitioned back downstream to a few key pools.
We tagged plenty of homebodies too. Fish like Joe, Richard, and the ironically named Miles have found good homes and are content to stay there. These fish have remained within a 0.5 mile stretch of river since tracking began. We might worry that they were dead if it were not for subtle upstream movements between tracking periods.
The seasons also likely have an impact on Lake Sturgeon movement patterns. Most fish seem to be moving less as water temperatures rise to potentially stressful levels. Other papers have been published suggesting that water temperatures over 28 C are stressful for Lake Sturgeon. Our research may be able to highlight temperature or flow characteristics that Lake Sturgeon select for during these stressful periods. Perhaps by knowing a little bit about an individual Lake Sturgeon and the environmental conditions we will be able to predict its answer the proverbial question that separates the movers from the stayers: Should I stay or should I go?
Scientists refer to their study species using their Latin names. In previous blog posts and in the blog title itself, I mention the species name for Lake Sturgeon, Acipenser fulvescens. When I began tagging Lake Sturgeon in March, I went from studying a single species to a collection of individuals. Through tracking these fish over then next 4 years I will be learning about the behaviors that make each Lake Sturgeon unique. Think of the fish having their own unique personalities (somewhere a behavioral ecologist is cringing). Some fish will be homebodies, rarely leaving a single pool, 0thers will be more adventurous moving hundreds of miles or more. Some will be males that make spawning migrations every other year while others will be mature females that will only migrate every 4 to 7 years.
Attributing human characteristics to your study animals is scientifically controversial if not outright taboo. However, naming my Lake Sturgeon has practical significance. Say I locate a fish near the Bonnots Mill access on the Osage River one week and return a week later and find that a fish is again hanging out in the same area. If I were referring to fish by tag numbers, I doubt that I would remember whether fish 16198 was the same fish as last time. Instead if I give the fish human names, I might remember that Moe likes hanging out near the boat ramp. In addition to being a memory device for me, I thought it would be a good way to communicate information about the fish to the public. You would probably be more interested in learning that a Lake Sturgeon named Emma Watson passed Lock and Dam #1 than fish #16204.
I assigned the naming task to my wife’s 8th grade science students. Students have named 24 fish and another 17 are awaiting new names. As long as I can pronounce them, I don’t think I will have much difficulty remembering them. They include: Cosmopolis, Lianlian, Emma Watson, Demitri, Julio, Rudinger, Danica (likely as speedy swimmer), Miles (likely a mover), and Fin. I plan to visit their class periodically to give them updates on what their fish are up to.
“For us hunting wasn’t a sport. It was a way to be intimate with nature…” -Ted Kerasote.
Fishing seems like a more passive verb than hunting and to some may connote an overweight angler drinking beer in a lawn chair waiting for a fish to decide to take his bait. Yet, like hunting, fishing can be, active, thoughtful, challenging, dare I say, onerous, with the death of the targeted creature being optional in the end. Most of what I’ve been doing in my research lately has been “hunting” (non-leathally of course) Lake Sturgeon using weighted lines with many baited hooks anchored to the bottom, to implant telemetry tags into. Thus Kerasote’s quote applies. In a scientific sense, intimacy with nature can mean opening all of your sensory channels to observe the ecosystem you are studying, knowing full well that observations are the basis of data and data the basis of discovery and discovery the basis for transmissible knowledge.
With practice, fishermen and fisheries scientists can sharpen their sensory skills. First comes the ability to identify a fish by sight. Distinctive traits: colors, scale size, mouth location, fin positions, and body shape all belong to each fish species and forming a gestalt that becomes embedded in an angler’s memory. Later other sensory identities of the fish species emerge. The oily smell that Gizzard Shad leaves on your hands, the slapping sound a gar makes as it surfaces after prey, and the feel of the fish tugging on your line.
The recognizable feeling of the propulsion provided by a particular type of tail fin imbues an angler with a prophetic ability able to identify a fish before seeing it. For instance, like a alligator with its jaws in a snare, catfish implement rapid head shakes and death rolls which leaves the line covered in their viscous slime. Shovelnose Sturgeon are so small and slender that their tug is subtle and less abrupt than catfish. On the other hand the much larger Lake Sturgeon has long powerful pulls. You can visualize the muscles along the flanks of its long body contracting and sending slow waves of motion down to the shark-like tail fin.The only thing that approaches the feel of a “Laker” on the line is the lowly Common Carp. With their thick caudal peduncle (tail base) they have equally powerful swimming strokes. Talk about a letdown when you pull these overgrown goldfish up from the bottom and see its copper scales flash in the sunlight. However, even seasoned anglers make unforgivable mistakes. Sometimes the longing of catching a Lake Sturgeon is strong enough, to make your imagination transfigure a trotline anchor into a 50 lb sturgeon.
Lake Sturgeon can also catch you off your guard. Like when fellow graduate student Corey Dunn was hauling up what he thought was a log and found a 20 lb sturgeon thrashing at the surface. In his moment of surprise, his instincts kicked in and rather than wait for Brandon to net the fish, he embraced the Sturgeon in a bear hug until he could subdue it into the livewell. Last week, I had a similar experience. As I untied the downstream anchor, I felt something lightly pulling on the line. Light rapid twitches had me thinking small catfish. Just I pulled a 12 inch Freshwater Drum boatside, a 30 lb Lake Sturgeon breached on the next hook down-line, hurling sheets of frothy water in my direction. Such was my surprise, that I barely fought off the urge to bear hug and manhandle the writhing fish in the boat myself.
Next time you go fishing and have a fish on the line, pay attention to the way it moves and make prediction. What verb would you use to describe its movement? Is it diving, jerking, twitching? Were you right? Then take it one step further, what about the fish’s body or lifestyle could account for its unique moves?
The wind ripped out of the south ushering in record warm temperatures. Thermometers were creeping into the 70’s in mid February. The maples had been duped by faux arrival of spring, their branches teemed with red buds along the banks. Under the translucent brownish turquoise water, things were much calmer. The Osage although very low was still pumping 2000 cubic feet of water per second downstream. When this mass of water met the mighty Missouri River less than a mile downstream, it backed up like too many sports fans funneled through the turnstiles at a stadium. This turned the river into a placid backwater. Despite this apparent quiet under the surface, things were beginning getting noisy, we just couldn’t tell yet.
Earlier that morning we set out four of our stationary acoustic receivers and a telemetry tag in a straight line each separated by 100 m. The tag sends out sound signals or “pings” every 12 seconds. The receivers are essentially underwater microphones that record the pings.The goal of this mini experiment was to determine over what distance the stationary receivers were able to detect pings from the tag. If the furthest receiver, 400 m away, could detect most of the pings then theoretically it should be able to catch the pings from any tagged sturgeon that swims up the 300 m wide Osage River when we deploy the receivers for for real. Brandon and I were stretched out on the boat, trying our best to kill time, letting the technology do the work for us. We had four hours to kill while we waited for the receivers to listen for pings.
When the clock finally struck 3:30 we hastily retrieved our gear. Brandon guided the blue F-250 up the winding roads along the loess river hills. I began downloading the data to our field tablet. Luckily, all four receivers seemed to be picking up at least 80% of the tag transmissions which means that the likelihood of a receiver missing at tagged Sturgeon swimming by should be relatively low.
And as proof of our theory, we happened to detect our first tagged Lake Sturgeon by accident! Fish number 26025 is a Lake Sturgeon that was tagged by Missouri Department of Conservation Biologist Travis Moore last Spring. This fish was a big boy too, measuring 48 inches long and weight 32 pounds. Could it be starting its migration up the Osage in search of spawning habitat? Only time will tell. The battery in this fish’s tag should last another couple of years allowing us to collect information on where it moves and what habitat it prefers.
I’ve finally emerged from a long blogging hiatus. This emergence coincides with an emergence from my troglodytic existence in the basement of ABNR Building on Mizzou’s campus. Troglodytic or cave dwelling, is not an exaggeration of how I have spent the winter. Unaccustomed to the brightness of the outside world, my first day in the field left me with a cherry-red face and moderate eye strain.
Soon the first warm days of the season will also rouse the Lake Sturgeon in Missouri’s rivers out of their winter sluggishness. As they begin to move they will likely be rather hungry as well. Hungry enough, we hope, to readily gobble a gob of nightcrawlers on our trotlines. After which we can surgically implant acoustic telemetry tags to track their movements over the next 4 years. But all of this work is for later posts. There are many preparatory activities that need to be made for the field season.
The goals of the first forays into the field were to assess the potential study area which includes the larger tributaries to the Missouri River that we expect Lake Sturgeon to swim up during the spring in search of spawning habitat. My main focus is on the Osage and the Gasconade, but Lake Sturgeon are unpredictable, the Chariton, Grand, Lamine, and Moreau rivers might entice a wayward Sturgeon as well. This leaves me and my trusty side-kick Brandon with 100’s of miles to patrol for the fish we tag, which unless we can find a house boat that can navigate these rivers, is an unrealistic goal.
However, there is another way around this. We can deploy “eyes” or rather “ears” to patrol these rivers for tagged Sturgeon 24-7. These ears are Vemco stationary receivers. These receivers have microphones built in that can detect the sound “pings” emitted by the tags implanted in our Lake Sturgeon. For example, we may tag a sturgeon in the Osage River. If this fish decides to swim up the Grand River within say 500 m of a stationary receiver, the receiver will log the fish’s tag number for us to download later.
The biggest issue with the stationary receivers is choosing the best place to set them to 1. prevent damage or loss during floods and 2. to prevent loss via theft (not sure why anyone would want one of these). One secure place researchers have used in the past are bridge piers, with permission from the Department of Transportation of Course. The river channel is the highway for migrating sturgeon and swimming upstream means they must pass under these bridges where we can observe their presence with stationary receivers during times we aren’t able to manually track them.
A good bridge pier for a stationary receiver is one that is in deep water, and has low flow velocity. Swift flow can create extra noise that interferes with the receiver’s microphone.
In addition to looking at bridges which isn’t terribly exciting, I also got a first look at some of my study sites. Some were more scenic than others. And some cool wildlife along the way.
As the name tag says this blog will serve as an introduction to Acipenser fulvescens, the mighty Lake Sturgeon. We, the sturgeon and I, are just now becoming acquainted. For my master’s I worked on a tiny minnow called the Clinch Dace, which when full grown, measures a maximum of 8-9 cm and weigh less than 10 g. I will now be working on a fish that can reach lengths surpassing 7 feet and weights up to 110 kg. To put that in perspective, the weight of largest Lake Sturgeon ever caught may surpass the combined weight of all of the adult Clinch Dace on the planet (Moore 2016). I’ve got a lot to learn…
It’s okay though. I’ll have 4-5 years to study the Lake Sturgeon. I’ll be implanting acoustic telemetry tags in these guys and gals and following them on their seasonal migrations around Central Missouri’s rivers.
Perhaps it is best to start our introduction of the Lake Sturgeon with a post about some of man’s first interactions with this species. Native Americans knew sturgeon well and tribes of the upper Midwest such as the Ojibwe had a deep respect for this fish. Before affluent modern society decided that Sturgeon caviar should become the culinary equivalent of gold (treatment of white American’s early relationship with the sturgeon will require its own post), Native Americans had long celebrated the return of Sturgeon at rapids in the spring during their annual spawning run. The arrival of the Lake Sturgeon, or “name” (nah-may) as they called them, were celebrated with festivals, feasts, and rituals. The Menominee considered the Sturgeon one of their founding ancestors but after a long harsh Wisconsin winter where food was scarce, they didn’t mind inviting their big, easily captured relatives over for dinner. At these sturgeon feasts, the fish were eaten but also offered to the Gods with thankful praise. These tribes even began the practice of spearing sturgeon through the ice which continues to be a popular regional sportfishing practice today.
In recent years, tribes like the Menominee have been instrumental in restoring Lake Sturgeon to their native habitats where past harvest and dams had thwarted their migrations. Just as the name had helped give birth to their tribes, they are giving this fossil of a fish a second chance at life in Wisconsin’s lakes and streams.
Info and Photo Sources and Links:
David R. M. Beck. (1995). Return to Namä’o Uskíwämît: The Importance of Sturgeon in Menominee Indian History. The Wisconsin Magazine of History,79(1), 32-48. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4636602
Moore, M. J. 2016. Distribution and population characterization of Clinch Dace (Chrosomus sp. cf. saylori) in the Upper Clinch River System, Virginia. Master’s thesis Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA.