Laura Bein’s In the Archives column for The Ann Arbor Chronicle appears around the end of every month. Her latest installment is From Cordwood to Caviar. It tracks the lake sturgeon in Michigan from the beginning on known history when they were abundant to their present endangered status and begins:
Twenty thousand dinosaurs live in the river system bordering Detroit. They’re rugged descendants of the few who survived one of Michigan’s worst ecological disasters, against which one University of Michigan professor battled – in vain. His efforts were crushed by Michigan’s short-lived yet feverish caviar industry.
Among the most primitive of fish, sturgeon first appeared when the Earth had just one continent. Millenia later the lake sturgeon thickly populated the Great Lakes and was fished by native peoples.
A young adventurer of noble French birth described the fish in his 1703 bestseller whose English title is “New Voyages to North America.” Baron de Lahontan’s book detailed the experiences gleaned from a decade of travel in New France, the onetime colony that encompassed most of present-day eastern Canada and the U.S. He wrote of Lake Erie, “[I]t abounds with sturgeon and whitefish, but trout are very scarce in it as well as the other fish that we take in the Lakes of Hurons and [Michigan].”
Sturgeon remained common over a century later, as noted by James Lanman in his 1839 book “History of Michigan.”
These lakes abound also with fish, some of the most delicious kinds. Among these are the Sturgeon, the Mackinaw Trout, the Mosquenonge [muskellunge], the white fish, and others of smaller size peculiar to fresh water. The Sturgeon advances up the stream from the lakes during the early part of spring to spawn, and are caught there in large quantities by the Indians.
In the first half of the 19th century, Michigan settlers were beginning to catch sturgeon too, to their irritation. In trying to net the prized whitefish, fishermen in lakes Michigan, Erie, and Ontario viewed sturgeon as unwelcome bycatch, too fatty and rank to eat. Six to nine feet long or longer, the fish bore five rows of pointed scutes, or toothlike scales along its body that ripped holes in fishing nets. Fishermen killed sturgeon and dumped or buried their carcasses on shore. In Ontario at Amherstburg, the oily fish were stacked like firewood and left to dry. The mummified bodies were burned to heat the boilers of wood-burning steamboats on the Detroit River.
Read on much more as Laura follows the fascinating history of the Lake Sturgeon from 20 cent caviar sandwiches and the work of early fish scientists at the University of Michigan to deal with a crashing population to the state of the Lake Sturgeon today.
You can see some lake sturgeon in action in this cool video trailer for a documentary on the Lake Sturgeon restoration efforts of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.