It has a shark’s tailfin, a carp’s vacuum mouth, and a row of sharp spines lining its back and belly. A young lake sturgeon resembles a fish that swam straight out of the set of the dinosaur movie Jurassic Park.
The lake sturgeon looks so prehistoric because it hasn’t changed much in the past 350 million years. Although these strange-looking fish have been around for a long time, they disappeared from Kentucky’s interior lakes and rivers more than 50 years ago.
Last April, more than 200 young lake sturgeons were stocked into the Cumberland River in Whitley County. The place where these year-old fish went into the water is the same section of river where Kentucky’s last known lake sturgeon from the state’s interior waterways was caught in 1954. (Kentucky Fish and Wildlife researcher Matt Thomas says two lake sturgeons were found in the Ohio River some eight years ago, but there have been virtually no other sightings in Kentucky in more than 50 years.)
What happened to this species? Because these fish may migrate 100 miles to reach the shallow, rocky shoals they need to lay their eggs, the construction of dams all along the Cumberland River could have blocked their spawning runs. Commercial anglers may have decimated their numbers. Other likely culprits include pollution and attempts to “improve” the river by channelizing it.
Several things have changed since lake sturgeons disappeared from the state, giving researchers hope that this restoration will be successful. Water quality in the Cumberland River has improved since the 1950s. The stocking location also allows these fish access to shallow spawning shoals. Commercial anglers may no longer keep lake sturgeons.
This isn’t a short-term restoration project. Because lake sturgeons take years before they’re mature enough to lay eggs, two decades must pass before researchers can gauge whether the project worked.
Full-grown lake sturgeons reach a truly impressive size. They may reach 7 feet in length and weigh as much as 300 pounds. It takes a long time to reach these proportions, though. Female lake sturgeons can live up to 150 years.
Fortunately, lake sturgeons are not on the brink of extinction in the United States. Stable populations of these fish exist to the north of Kentucky. Eggs for Kentucky’s project came from lake sturgeons in the upper Mississippi River. Perhaps one day Kentucky will have a population of lake sturgeons to call its own.
Free fishing weekend: Every year Kentucky offers free fishing days the first weekend in June. No fishing license is required during these days to fish any Kentucky waters. Just put out your Gone Fishin’ sign.