This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Lake Sturgeon Working Group, a collaborative partnership between government and nonprofit organizations with a shared desire to bring the species back to Tennessee.
A few decades ago, the Tennessee River was an unfriendly place for lake sturgeon.
In early 1970s, the combination of damming, poor water quality and overfishing led to widespread degradation of Tennessee waterways.
By the 1990s, river conditions were much better.
The Clean Water Act of 1972 improved water quality, and the Tennessee Valley Authority revised reservoir release guidelines to restored water quality important to lake sturgeon habitat.
Biologists saw an opportunity to restore sturgeon to the waters it once called home.
“Because of the unique life history of lake sturgeon — meaning that they can live a long time and don’t begin reproducing until they are anywhere from 17-25 — we knew this would be a long-term project,” said Dr. Anna George, the Aquarium’s vice president of conservation science and education. “It wasn’t ever realistic to think we could release sturgeon for just a couple of years and see the population recover.
“But all of the partners knew that, if we committed to this project for a long time, we could be part of restoring this really incredible species back to Tennessee.”
To date, members of the Lake Sturgeon Working Group have reintroduced more than a third of a million sturgeon to the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. These fish are offspring of wild-spawning sturgeon in Wisconsin’s Wolf River. Unlike Tennessee, where the lake sturgeon is listed as endangered, more of the northern population such as those in the Wolf River are considered stable.
Eggs collected and fertilized from fish in Wisconsin are sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery in Warm Springs, Georgia. Once hatched, the baby fish are transported to facilities such as the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute’s freshwater field station to be cared for until ready for reintroduction.
The effort to bring sturgeon back to the Volunteer State finds its’ roots in one of the lake sturgeon’s biological superlatives. The potential for incredible longevity comes with a longer time to reach sexual maturity. Females achieve this by age 20.
After 23 years into this project, only the first years of sturgeons reintroduced into the population have reached the age to reproduce on their own.
When it happens, celebrations will be immense, according to aquatic conservation biologist Dr. Bernie Kuhajda.
“Any signs of natural spawning lake sturgeon would be especially welcome,” he says. “We’re all excited at that prospect."