Lake Erie Was Once Huge Supplier of Caviar
SANDUSKY, OHIO -Most of the fine caviar consumed at last weekend's
Millennium celebrations was most likely roe from Russian buluga sturgeon.
However, much of the delicacy eaten at prestigious galas to ring in the turn
of the last century came from lake sturgeon taken from Lake Erie.
Sturgeon was once a lucrative commercial fishery on the shores of
Lake Erie once society acquired a taste for fine caviar and smoked sturgeon
in the mid-1800s, according to the Ohio Division of Wildlife. Records show
5 million pounds of sturgeon were commercially harvested on Lake Erie in
1885. Sandusky alone processed more than 100,000 sturgeon during peak years
in the 1880s.
A sharp decline in sturgeon and its harvest occurred in the late 1890s. By
the 1920s, sturgeon populations were much reduced in all the Great Lakes.
Increased sightings of lake sturgeon by commercial fishermen, boaters,
anglers, and shoreline residents over the past several years indicate their
numbers are gradually increasing. The number of sturgeon caught by perch
anglers has increased recently, because perch anglers fish on or near the
bottom, where sturgeon feed.
The Division received 30 reports of sturgeon on Lake Erie involving 35 fish
during 1999. Sturgeon reports totaled 204 over the past four years,
compared with only 39 between 1989 and 1995.
Perplexing to biologists, however, is that very few juvenile sturgeon were
reported last year compared to the three previous years. For the years 1996
through 1998, more than 80 percent of the sightings involved fish in the 14-
to 24-inch group, which are young fish 2 to 5 years of age. With a dramatic
increase in round gobies in Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair, and the St. Clair
River since 1996, biologists are looking at goby interactions with sturgeon
at important spawning grounds in the St. Clair River.
Records show lake sturgeon can grow to over 7 feet in length, weigh over 300
pounds, and reach over 150 years of age. They have a prehistoric appearance
with no scales, but instead bony plates along the back, sides, and belly.
They have a distinctive shark-like tail, long, pointed snout, and a
suction-like mouth. The upper body ranges from olive to gray, graduating to
a yellow or milky belly.
Besides overharvesting, other factors that played a role in the sturgeon's
decline, included polluted waters, damming of rivers that prevented sturgeon
from returning to spawning grounds, and a slow maturity rate. Female
sturgeon do not normally spawn until 20 years of age, and only spawn every
four to seven years. Consequently, young fish could not replace the adults
lost to commercial fishing quickly enough to sustain a stable population.
Lake sturgeon are protected throughout much of the Great Lakes and is a
state endangered species. Anyone who catches a sturgeon should release it
The Division of Wildlife acts as a clearinghouse in collecting information
on sturgeon populations in Lake Erie, as well as Lake Huron, St. Clair
River, Lake St. Clair, and Detroit River. Any sightings should be reported
to the Ohio Division of Wildlife at (419) 625-8062. Additional information
should include the date observed, location of the sighting, approximate
length, any tag information, and a photograph, if possible.