Distribution of Lake Sturgeon in New York: 11 Years of Restoration Management
Chalupnicki, Marc A., Dittman, Dawn E., Carlson, Douglas M., The American Midland Naturalist
Lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) are native within the Lake Ontario drainage basin and listed as threatened by New York State. In 1995 the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) initiated restoration management of lake sturgeon. This management included both protection of extant populations and stocking of uninhabited historic waters with juvenile sturgeon. A list compiled by NYSDEC of observations of lake sturgeon from New York State waters for the period encompassing 1800-2005 was combined with recent observations through 2008 and formatted (Geographic Information System) to allow mapping of sturgeon geographical distribution. Distributions of pre- and post-restoration sturgeon were examined by occurrence and type of observation. Distribution patterns indicated lakes and rivers with current sturgeon presence have increased from five to eight, which was the first-phase goal of the New York Lake Sturgeon Recovery Plan. Lake sturgeon have started to expand into joining water to include the Indian R., Oneida R., Seneca R. and Oswego R. The protected historic populations in the Niagara R., Grasse R., St. Lawrence R., and Lakes Erie and Ontario continue to have low numbers of sturgeon observations. This summary of mapped lake sturgeon distribution information will help in guiding research assessments to waters containing substantial populations. These accessible reaches provide a generous advantage to the released juveniles as they move toward the next goal of restoration, spawning of sturgeon in targeted waters.
Lake sturgeons (Adpenser fulvescens) are native to New York State and the only sturgeon species endemic to the Laurentian Great Lakes (Thomas and Haas, 2002). With an evolutionary lineage that goes back 300 million years ago, lake sturgeon were also abundant in the Hudsonjames Bay and Mississippi River watersheds and extending south as far as the Tennessee River into Alabama and northern Mississippi (Harkness and Dymond, 1961; Scott and Crossman, 1973; Lee et al, 1980; Houston, 1987; Ferguson and Duckworth, 1997). Presently lake sturgeon are found in 20 U.S. states and seven Canadian provinces at only a fraction of their historic abundance (Williams et al, 1989).
Prior to the mid-1800's lake sturgeon were commonly found in New York waters of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries. Abundant spawning occurred in tributaries near rapids and along the rocky shores of Lakes Ontario and Erie (Carlson, 1995) and are still visited by enthusiasts (Smith, 1994). The vast number of lake sturgeon supported a commercial fishery that utilized their eggs for caviar and flesh for consumption, fertilizer, leather, oil and isinglass exported across Europe (Prince, 1905; Harkness and Diamond, 1961).
Lake sturgeon populations were vulnerable to overharvesting due to their late maturation (males 12-15 y, females 17-24 y), irregular spawning cycles (males 2-4 y intervals, females 37 y intervals) and long life span (80-100 y) (Scott and Crossman, 1973; Houston, 1987). By the 1960's, lake sturgeon populations in New York were greatly reduced (<20% population remained) and the fishery was closed in 1976 (Carlson, 1995). Other factors also contributing to their decline include reduced water quality, degraded habitat and dams on tributaries that restricted access to critical habitat (Auer, 1999; Bogue, 2000).
Lake sturgeon abundance has been estimated at 1% of historical levels in their native range (Hay-Chmielewski and Whelan, 1997). In New York, Jolliff and Eckert (1971) concluded that the St. Lawrence River sturgeon population below the Moses Saunders Dam at Massena, NY was the only remaining fishery (Jolliff and Eckert, 1971) and probably the only sustainable population with enough individuals not considered in danger of being extirpated. Carlson (1995) summarized the distribution and abundance data for lake sturgeon in New York, finding low abundance and absence in some historic rivers, supporting the current state designation as a threatened species. …