SUTTONS BAY — Saving the lake sturgeon took on a little more immediacy for Suttons Bay residents recently when one of the freshwater fish fell ill at an education center.
Karen Pontius, owner of the Suttons Bay Trading Co., said she was taken aback the morning of July 29 when an intern from the nearby Inland Seas Education Association walked into her store frantically asking for sea salt.
The young woman explained that one of the education center’s two lake sturgeon was found floating upside down in its tank, barely alive and pale.
“They came in here kind of panicking and we had the sea salt,” Pontius said. “I guess I was a little surprised.”
The fish are listed as a threatened species in Michigan. Only a handful of groups have permits to raise them in captivity. The education center, one of those permitted to raise the fish, began with four sturgeon, two of which died in recent years.
“They’re really a prized attribute to our education center,” said Taryn Carew, education specialist for the center. “We were sitting in a staff meeting and Callie (Chappelle an intern for the center) came in and said ‘we were going to lose a sturgeon.’”
The group jumped into action and began making calls for help. Officials at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, after getting a description of the fish’s symptoms, told Chappelle she needed to find pure sea salt and make a saline bath for the fish. They suspected the eight-inch-long lake sturgeon was suffering from a mineral imbalance in its blood, Carew said.
“It was really interesting and it was truly a small town coming together to save a small organism,” Carew said.
The relatively young sturgeon — ISEA officials estimate four years old — was placed in a saltwater bath for 90 seconds, according to instructions dictated by DNR officials, said Carew.
“Within a half hour, he was floating right again,” Carew said.
The next day the group gave the young fish a couple more salt baths for good measure. Three weeks later, it appears to have made a full recovery.
Preserving the lake sturgeon is a pretty serious subject on the Great Lakes, said Mark Breederland, director of the Michigan Sea Grant Extension Northwest region.
The fish, which can live for decades and grow to more than eight feet long, have been the focus of decades of efforts by conservation groups. The lake sturgeon is considered a keystone species in the Great Lakes, Breederland said.
“Historically, they were over harvested and with that long life cycle they don’t just bounce back,” he said.
While bystanders could catch a glimpse of a lake sturgeon in an area river during the spawning season, most only will have a chance to see one in a facility like ISEA.
And, because of regulations, few centers have lake sturgeon in captivity, making the rescue effort all that more important for the ISEA staff who worked on the resuscitation effort.
“Not a lot of people can have them in their center,” Carew said.