Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, August 14, 2019


Jeff Miller, (510) 499-9185,

Iconic Sturgeon of Great Lakes, Mississippi River Take Step Toward Endangered Species Protection

CHICAGO— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced it will consider Endangered Species Act protection for lake sturgeon. Today’s positive finding responds to a 2018 Center for Biological Diversity petition seeking safeguards for the big fish.

The agency found listing the sturgeon as threatened or endangered may be warranted based on threats from dams and hydroelectric facilities, along with river dredging and channelization. Other threats include pollution, habitat fragmentation and invasive species.

“This is a big, positive step for lake sturgeon, but these prehistoric survivors need even stronger protections if they’re going to survive,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These behemoth fish are a bellwether for the health of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River. We need to protect their spawning rivers and other habitats to ensure they’re not lost forever to extinction.”

The lake sturgeon is an ancient fish species that lives primarily in the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River drainage. It has declined by roughly 99 percent over the past century because of overfishing, dams and pollution.

“The mighty lake sturgeon was the ancient ruler of thousands of river miles in the Ohio River basin, but today only a small remnant of that genetically distinct population remains, blocked by a dam, in approximately 46 miles of the East Fork White River,” said Gary Moody with Fishable Indiana Streams for Hoosiers. “It's practically a miracle that they still exist in that tiny range — they're not very resilient when their environment deteriorates, and their numbers are few. One big chemical spill, one bad drought or some combination of factors could push Indiana’s lake sturgeon to extinction.”

“The lake sturgeon is one of Indiana's iconic aquatic species, found in Lake Michigan and the Ohio River and its tributaries including the lower White River,” said Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. “Overfishing, pollution and habitat degradation have caused the decline of this ancient fish to where it now requires additional protection to recover it to healthy populations.”

Lake sturgeon can live for 100 years, grow more than 8 feet long and weigh up to 300 pounds. Their populations in Minnesota, Lake Superior, the Missouri River, Ohio River, Arkansas-White River and lower Mississippi River may qualify as endangered. Sturgeon in Lake Michigan and the upper Mississippi River basin may be threatened. In lakes Huron, Erie and Ontario, as well as the St. Lawrence River basin, sturgeon are less imperiled. Most states within the fish’s range provide state protection, prohibiting or limiting harvest.

A May 2018 petition by the Center for Biological Diversity requested a “threatened” listing under the Endangered Species Act for all lake sturgeon in the United States. An alternative option was for the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether there are distinct populations of lake sturgeon that warrant separate listing as threatened or endangered.

Fishable Indiana Streams for Hoosiers, Hoosier Environmental Council, Illinois Environmental Council and the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School joined with the Center in May 2019 to urge the Fish and Wildlife Service to take action.

The Service will now initiate a scientific status review and public comment period before making a final decision.

In the late 1800s, before commercial fisheries decimated lake sturgeon runs, more than 15 million sturgeon lived in the Great Lakes. They are now reduced to less than 1 percent of historic levels, with limited natural recovery of most remaining spawning populations.

Although many current restoration efforts are aimed at bringing sturgeon back to rivers and tributaries where they once spawned, depleted sturgeon populations take many decades to recover, and the vast majority of spawning runs have been lost. There are only six remaining lake sturgeon populations with more than 1,000 adult fish.

States and tribal organizations are working to restore sturgeon spawning populations. But most have not recovered from overfishing, and dams still block access to former spawning and rearing habitats. And they’re now threatened by climate change.

Lake sturgeon have no scales but are covered by rows of bony scutes. Their preferred habitats are large shallow lakes, rivers and near-shore areas. They feed using their protruding mouths to suction up bottom-dwelling organisms like crustaceans and insect larvae. Lake sturgeon have a low reproductive rate because they take 15 to 25 years to reach spawning age, and adults do not spawn every year.

Lake Sturgeon by United States Fish and Wildlife Service available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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