Bookmark and Share

Volunteers on guard in Up North woods to save Michigan sturgeon

The fish police

ONAWAY - The sun sank behind the pines. The air began to cool. It was time to light a campfire.

Dale Kennicott grabbed a propane torch, laid the tip against a pile of sticks in the fire pit, pulled the trigger and suddenly had an instant fire. “Why mess around?” he said with a laugh.

It was early May. Behind him was the Black River, whose rushing water was stained brown by the tannins from the trees. This is where sturgeon from a nearby lake were swimming. It's also where poachers try to snag them illegally.

See CARLISLE, Page 12A

Michigan State University student Shaley Valentine holds a sturgeon to show a group of sturgeon guard volunteers on the riverbank in Onaway on May 16. PHOTOS BY RYAN GARZA/DETROIT FREE PRESS

John Carlisle

Columnist Detroit Free Press USA TODAY NETWORK

Dale Kennicott, 68, of West Branch laughs with friends at their campsite along the Black River.

Carlisle: Volunteers on guard Up North to save Michigan sturgeon

Continued from Page 1A

And it's where dozens of people were camped out to try to stop that from happening.

Every spring, sturgeon leave Black Lake in the northeast of Michigan's Lower Peninsula and swim up the Black River to spawn. And every spring, poachers try to spear these massive fish and take them. Some who do this are poor and need the food. Most just want the eggs to sell as caviar, which can fetch $100 an ounce. In a fish that can carry gallons of eggs, a single poached sturgeon is a jackpot.

But sturgeon are classified as threatened in Michigan. They were almost harvested to extinction not long ago. Lots of hard work has slowly brought their numbers up. And some people want to keep it that way.

Every year for two decades now, a group called Sturgeon for Tomorrow has organized volunteers to camp along this river, stand guard all day and night, and keep poachers away with their constant presence.

West Branch resident Kennicott, 68, sat back in a fold-out chair on the ridge above the water. Next to him, Ed Ptasznik of Livonia, 66, and his brother-in-law, Gordon Bird of Lake Orion, 66, sat and watched the fire, keeping an eye on the river.

“The fish go into certain holes and all you gotta do is throw your spear into certain holes there's sometimes so many of them that they just spear in the hole and they'll come up with a fish,” Bird said of the poachers. “I mean, I'm astounded that there's still this much poaching going on. But there is. So we need people to come up and help prevent it.”

He leaned back and opened a beer. So did Ptasznik. Bird poured a small shot of whiskey.

Volunteers who come here to guard against poaching sign up for lookout shifts along the riverside - each shift usually being six hours long. And these guys' shift was over. So at the end of their day, it was time to unwind and celebrate another successful day of protecting the fish.

After 20 years, sturgeon guarding has evolved from a gratifying cause into a six-week party in the woods that brings hundreds of people who sometimes stay for weeks at a time for a shared goal. Lifelong friendships among strangers have formed here. A few people have even met their future spouses. It has become a lively event that's part nature retreat, part conservation effort, and part camping party in the northern Michigan wilderness.

Just because you're doing important work, the volunteers say, doesn't mean you can't have a good time doing it.

“There's a lot of fun,” Bird said. “You can have some beverages if you'd like after you take care of your business, you can do some good cooking out there. There's a lot of birds to watch if you're into that kind of thing. You see eagles all the time, you see osprey. It's great. It's good stuff. Just being out here is good.”

Sturgeon have been called living fossils because they're essentially leftover dinosaurs. The species dates back 136 million years to the Triassic Period, and they're different from modern fish. They have no teeth or bones; their skeleton is cartilage. They have no scales; instead they have leathery skin. The biggest among them can reach 15 feet in length and weigh a few thousand pounds. Lake sturgeon, though smaller, can still reach 7 feet long and 250 pounds. And they can live up to 150 years.

Pollution, habitat loss and commercial overfishing have brought their numbers in the Great Lakes region down 99 percent from their historical peak, according to state estimates. They're rare in the United States, listed as endangered by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species and they're classified as threatened by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which calls what's left of them in the state a “remnant population.” The International Union for the Conservation of Nature deems sturgeon “more critically endangered than any other species.” This spring, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to classify lake sturgeon as endangered in the 23 states where they're found.

In Michigan, taking or possessing a sturgeon in violation of state law can bring up to 180 days in jail and up to a $2,000 fine or both.

When they spawn, females will migrate to the spot where they were born and release up to 3 million sticky eggs that attach to rocks on the riverbed. The spawning season spans a few short weeks because it requires very specific weather conditions to be successful. In the Black River, that usually falls sometime from late April to early June, when the water begins to warm.

Avery small amount of sturgeon fishing is still allowed in Michigan. Each angler is limited to one per year, and only on certain waters at certain times. Earlier this year on Black Lake, for example, 426 anglers registered for the chance to catch the seven sturgeon that were permitted to be harvested from the 10,000-acre lake starting Feb. 3. The season lasted just more than two hours.

Mary Paulson was there. “It's scheduled for four days,” said the 54-year-old from Riverdale of the fishing season. “The last two years, it's lasted just about an hour or so. It's like boom boom, it's over.”

She's caught five sturgeon in her life, though never on Black Lake, where the preferred method is spearing, and where she fishes from an ice shanty. “They taste fabulous,” she said. “It's closest actually to chicken. It doesn't taste like chicken; it's just the texture of chicken. Its bite is firm. It doesn't flake. It's a nice, white mild. Not fishy.”

She and her husband, Jim, have been part of the sturgeon guarding program for a few years. For volunteers like them, immersion in the Up North wilderness is the appeal.

“Our first year they told us we're free to walk up and down, go down the trails,” said Jim Paulson, 55. “So we got going, we found this logjam that went across both sides of the river, and there were five baby otters playing on that jam, running back and forth. So we sat down for 40 or 50 minutes, watching these baby otters, until mama otter seen us, and she came and hurled them up and took them off. We were kind of hooked after that.”

His friend Sharon Church, 68, stood nearby, looking at the river. The Alpena resident was here with her husband, Bill, for their 16th year of sturgeon guarding. They met the Paulsons here during a previous year's guarding and became good friends who hang out year-round.

“It's about waking up in the morning and sometimes looking out there, seeing a doe and a fawn drinking out of the water, you know?” she said. “It's watching the small mouth bass over there making a nest. And you're all doing the same thing - everybody's looking out for the sturgeon. It's great.”

Brenda Archambo was only 6 when she saw her first sturgeon. She was ice fishing with her grandpa on Burt Lake. “I remember looking into the eye,” said the now-55-year-old from Cheboygan. “Its pupils are diamond-shaped, like a dinosaur. And I never really forgot it. Plus, it was a huge fish. I'd never seen anything like that.”

She's been fascinated by them ever since.

Fishing for lake sturgeon is a longtime tradition in northeast Michigan. But by the '90s, in response to plummeting numbers, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had placed strict lim-

Continued on next page

“I mean, I'm astounded that there's still this much poaching going on. But there is. So we need people to come up and help prevent it.”

Gordon Bird,

66, of Lake Orion, who helps guard the sturgeon from poachers

During sturgeon spawning season, researchers from Michigan State University and the Department of Natural Resources swim the Black River in Onaway, netting sturgeon, bringing them to shore and conducting experiments to help restore the population of the species, which the state classifies as “threatened.” Here, divers search for sturgeon. PHOTOS BY RYAN GARZA/DFP

“It's just something intrinsic, that it feels good to the soul ... to know that together we have made a difference in these last 20 years to help this population,” said Brenda Archambo.

Bookmark and Share