The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Section of Fisheries is celebrating a major milestone in the recovery efforts of the lake sturgeon population on Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River. According to DNR fisheries biologists, short-term population recovery goals have been met, which is a big step toward full recovery.
“The population is recovering nicely and it’s a testament to a how successful long-term cooperative efforts on international and border waters can be when coupled with strong clean water legislation,” said Phil Talmage, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Baudette.
The lake sturgeon recovery has been a cooperative effort between the Minnesota-Ontario Borders Waters Fisheries Management Committee, which includes fisheries biologists from the DNR northwest and northeast regions and Canada Ministry of Natural Resources.
Since the early 1980s, fisheries biologists in Minnesota and Canada have engaged in cooperative research and management of the fisheries resources along the U.S.-Canada border. Cooperatively, the Border Waters Lake Sturgeon Committee drafted short- and long-term goals for the lake sturgeon population. The underlying objective was to re-establish and then maintain a self-sustaining sturgeon stock in all suitable habitats within the Minnesota–Ontario border waters. The population goals were based on what would be expected from a lightly exploited population. All of the goals were based on age, size, abundance and brook stock characteristics.
To monitor the recovery, DNR and Canada Ministry of Natural Resources biologists have aggressively surveyed the population. Early efforts included tagging studies to determine lake sturgeon movement. More recently biologists have conducted population estimates and annually monitored spawning locations. Through this cooperative effort, there are now almost 5,000 tagged lake sturgeon that are used to monitor the sustainability of the fishery and ensure this great recovery continues. As a result of this monitoring program, biologists have determined the short-term goals of the plan have been met.
The Lake of the Woods/Rainy River population, like other lake sturgeon populations in Minnesota, has been threatened by the combined effects of past overharvesting, decades of industrial water pollution, and habitat degradation caused by dams that have changed water flows and short-stopped fish migration routes to breeding waters.
Lake sturgeon recovery efforts on Lake of the Woods began in the 1960s when pollution controls were put in place through the U.S. Clean Water Act and reciprocal legislation in Ontario. However, recovery has been gradual because of the low reproductive capacity of this species.
The lake sturgeon, sometimes called the living dinosaur of the fish world, can live to more than 100 years of age and weigh more than 200 pounds. It is a long-lived, slow-growing, late-maturing fish. In Lake of the Woods, males do not reach sexual maturity until 17 years old and females until 26 years old. Unlike most fish species, they do not spawn annually.
Due its slow growth and late maturing characteristics, the lake sturgeon is highly susceptible to over harvest. Only under low levels of harvest will a depleted population be able to fully recover.
According to DNR fisheries biologists, during the recovery phase the allowable harvest on this population has been conservative and held to a level that would provide some harvest opportunities while allowing the population to recover at an accelerated pace. The DNR is not anticipating any adjustments in lake sturgeon fishing regulations at this time.
“While our short-term recovery goals have been met, this does not trigger any changes in the management framework,” said Kevin Peterson, DNR area fisheries supervisor in International Falls. “This framework will still include an innovative harvest management tag system, a defined harvest, catch-and-release seasons and a closed season to protect spawning fish.”
Lake sturgeon fishing regulations on the Minnesota side of Lake of the Woods and on all other state waters will remain the same. Anglers can purchase a tag to harvest one lake sturgeon between 45 and 50 inches, or one more than 75 inches per calendar year. Mail-in registration cards are required for anyone wanting to harvest and possess a lake sturgeon. Party fishing for lake sturgeon is illegal. Gaffs may not be used to assist in landing sturgeon.
The spring harvest season on the Rainy River runs from April 24 – May 7. From May 8 to May 15, anglers can fish for lake sturgeon, but must release all fish they catch. The fishing season for lake sturgeon is closed May 16 – June 30. There is a second harvest season that runs July 1 – Sept. 30.
Lake sturgeon fishing regulations are detailed in the Fishing Regulations guide or online at www.dnr.state.mn.us/regulations/fishing.