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Lake sturgeon making a comeback in the Genesee

July 18, 2014
scientist holding a large fish and smilingJeff Wyatt, professor and chair of the Department of Comparative Medicine, with one of the lake sturgeons he has helped reintroduce in the Genesee River.

A lake sturgeon, which is New York’s largest freshwater fish, can grow up to seven feet long and can live as long as 150 years. The fact that this species is once again thriving in the Genesee River is good news for the fish, for a once-troubled embayment — and, potentially, for the local economy, says Jeff Wyatt, professor and chair of the Department of Comparative Medicine. 

For the last three years Wyatt, along with fellow University researcher Louis DiVincenti and Dawn Dittman of U.S. Geological Survey, have been netting and taking blood samples from the sturgeon they’ve reintroduced in the lower Genesee River, to test them for heavy metals, PCBs and other contaminants. The blood sampling project, funded with an Environmental Protection Agency $308,000 grant, is part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

The initiative will help determine whether the Rochester embayment (lower Genesee River and adjoining Lake Ontario) and 42 other locations around the Great Lakes can be de-listed as “areas of concern” because of past histories of water pollution. So far, the data is promising. The sturgeon in the Genesee “are healthy and growing just as well as sturgeon in waterways that are not areas of concern,” Wyatt said. Fourteen elements of environmental health (known as Beneficial Use Impairments) must also be considered in any delisting decision, he added. 

A healthy population of a bio-indicator species like the sturgeon is a sign that the Genesee’s water quality is on the right track. “When you’re delisted, it’s an indication that many of the metrics you value in your waterways are improving — flavor of fish, beach closings, and water quality. And that can improve revenue streams through fishing, beach going and community pride.” 

The first lake sturgeon that USGS, NYSDEC and USFWS researchers reintroduced into the Genesee River 10 years ago were only four inches long. Now they’re four feet long and have the potential to reach seven feet by the end of their lifespan, typically 55 years for males and 85-150 years for females

“They are good ambassadors for wetland, river and lake preservation,” says Wyatt, whose studies show that the fish are now thriving in a river that was once too polluted to sustain them. “People have had such a negative view of the Genesee. When you have a success story like this, showing an improvement in the river’s general health, they are really surprised.” 

With the support of the USGS, Seneca Park Zoo (Wyatt is director of Animal Health & Conservation there) and the University, he and other researchers reintroduced 1,900 baby sturgeon in the river in 2003-2004, then another 1,000 last year and plan to release 1,000 more this year. “They’re doing so well we want to continue repopulating the nursery,” Wyatt explained. (The sturgeon spend only the first 10 years of their lives in the area where they are released; they then move out into the lake, spending most of their time there except when they return to the river to spawn.) 

Lake sturgeon all but disappeared from Lake Ontario and its tributaries, probably because of a combination of pollution, overfishing and loss of habitat for spawning. The sturgeon, which are off limits to fishing, are now thriving in the Genesee. Presumably, whatever pollution remains in the river is now covered by sediment, Wyatt said. 

But researchers will continue to take a keen interest in the sturgeon. For example, they want to study the extent to which remaining pollution out in the lake impacts the reproductive success of the fish by evaluating serum hormones for evidence of endocrine disruption. “One of the interesting things about the sturgeon is that they are very much like people in one respect,” Wyatt noted. “They don’t reproduce until they’re 15-20 years old.” 

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Category: Science & Technology