Chuck Gnarra's eyes nearly popped when client Dick Brozell of Erie County, jigging for perch on Lake Erie party boat the Edward John, hooked a kind of fish he'd never seen before.
"A lot of the 40 people on board moved to the front of the boat to watch it," said Gnarra, who was captaining that day, June 24. "It jumped out of the water and someone said, 'I think that's a sturgeon,' and other people went, 'Nah! Can't be. Sturgeon aren't around anymore.'"
But that's exactly what it turned out to be -- all 37 prehistoric-looking inches.
Given sturgeon can grow to nearly 8 feet and hundreds of pounds, this fish was young, said the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Chuck Murray, who added he was delighted and surprised by reports of the catch, especially since it was the second caught that day. Brozell released the sturgeon off the Edward John, while John Homchenko of Erie released one of a similar size. Both fish hit on live bait in about 50 feet of water.
"We hadn't had reports [of sturgeon] in two or three years, then two in one day. That's notable," said Murray. "Let's put it this way, I've never brought one onto our boats since I've been with the commission, and that's 17 years."
His agency hasn't put many resources into studying lake sturgeon, although, coincidental to this year's catches, that is about to change. The commission is partnering with the state-run Tom Ridge Environmental Center in a new sturgeon work group, and will also help launch a sturgeon "watch," designed to enlist public participation. Small informational cards soon will be distributed to anglers, asking them to contact wildlife agencies with information about sturgeon catches or sightings.
Three endangered sturgeon species frequent Pennsylvania waters:
Atlantic sturgeon live in the ocean from Labrador to the Gulf of Mexico, some spawn in the Delaware River.
Short-nosed sturgeon live in Delaware Bay, many spawn in the Delaware River.
Lake sturgeon, a fresh-water species, live in the Great Lakes.
"They're an endangered species, so you've got to return them to the water immediately if you catch one," Murray said, "but we're asking folks to call us since we want to collect data."
Murray surmises Brozell's catch probably came from Lake St. Clair or the Niagara River, where sturgeon populations are robust enough to support a recreational fishery. Given its size, it was probably 20 years old, the age when sturgeon sexual maturity and can reproduce. Sturgeon can live for more than a century and spawn once every three to five years, choosing shallow, flowing water where their eggs can adhere to rocks and logs. The two recent catches may even have been on a virgin spawning run, Murray said, since May and June are when they spawn.
It's debatable, though, whether they are reproducing in the open waters of Lake Erie.
"Historically, there were open lake spawning populations, but that doesn't seem to be the case anymore. The most notable spawning populations are in the rivers, like the Niagara and the Huron-Erie corridor," said Murray. "We have the shoals and other areas where there's the wave action they like for spawning, but is the habitat enough for a viable population? I think that's doubtful, but it's one of the things the sturgeon work group may look into."
Sturgeon are as ancient as they look, dating back to the last Ice Age. They have scutes -- an armor-like covering -- instead of scales. And they are indigenous to the Great Lakes, although 25 other strains of sturgeon live in Europe, Asia and elsewhere in North America. Some types of sturgeon are anadromous, meaning they dwell in the ocean but swim inland to spawn, but Murray said Lake Erie sturgeon are a freshwater species, which may occasionally venture to brackish waters of the St. Lawrence River, but not the open sea.
Sturgeon have protected status in many parts of the world because of historic exploitation and impacts to their habitat. Beluga sturgeon, for example, have suffered overharvest because their caviar is so coveted. Overharvest also took a huge toll on Lake Erie sturgeon in past centuries, and their numbers have never rebounded, Murray said.
"People took millions of pounds of sturgeon out of Erie in the late 1800s because they considered them a nuisance that tore up fishermen's nets," he said. "They'd pile them up like firewood and burn them. Then they discovered there was a market for them, especially for their roe, so millions more pounds were taken for their flesh. That continued until the early 1900s. In less than 20 years, they were practically wiped out."
Given their tough hides, once they reach 4 inches Great Lakes sturgeon have few natural predators, although they've taken a hit from lampreys, an exotic invasive species that can latch onto their soft undersides and suck out their body fluids. About a decade ago, pollution-related botulism killed several Erie sturgeon and the carcasses washed up on shore.
The last recorded commercial harvest on Erie was on the Ontario side in 1983, when just 200 pounds was reported for the entire year.
"And that was probably one fish," Murray said. "They can get pretty big."
The largest recorded Great Lakes sturgeon was 310 pounds and almost 8 feet long, caught on Lake Superior in 1922.
Because the Fish and Boat Commission has no sturgeon assessment program, it cannot estimate sturgeon numbers, but Murray said perch fishermen would be catching them regularly if their population were abundant.
"They feed off the bottom like perch, sucking in everything they can find in the mud, so they're eating zebra mussels, crayfish and gobies," Murray said. "In fact, the gobies and zebra mussels, as well as improvements in water quality, may be why we're seeing a relative resurgence of sturgeon."
Murray said it will be a long time, if ever, before they are removed from the endangered list, but this summer's catches are encouraging.
Other Great Lakes states once stocked sturgeon as part of a restoration effort, but Murray said creating suitable spawning habitat is the preferred approach to fostering wild reproduction.
"With stocking, there are concerns about genetics and the risk of introducing disease," he said. "And it seems sturgeon, so far, are holding on. I'd like to see them make a comeback on their own."