ONAWAY – With a resounding slap of forked tail on a rubber suit, a fat female voiced her displeasure at the weigh, measure, squeeze and cut that disrupted her trip down a northern Michigan river .
“Goodbye, ladies,” researcher Signe VanDrunen said as her colleagues processed and released two sturgeon into the Upper Black River near Onaway on Wednesday morning. “Thank you.”
For the past 20 years, researchers in wetsuits and snorkeling gear have walked and swum the river for a few weeks each spring, picking up spawning sturgeon in the rushing waters of the river.
Data carefully recorded on riverside clipboards is helping researchers protect species considered endangered in Michigan – a combination of overharvesting, habitat loss and a slow reproductive cycle threatens a creature that can live 100 years and grow longer than a man is tall.
Such expeditions have helped revive failing species from about 500 sturgeons at Black Lake two decades ago to about 1,200 today, said Douglas Larson, research assistant for the Michigan State University Black River Sturgeon Facility.
On Wednesday, a team of cold-toed researchers collected data on 22 sturgeon.
As the big fish moved up the river in search of the perfect spawning ground, the researchers moved down the river, gear and oversized nets ready.
The snorkels rose out of the water and then disappeared when the divers spotted their targets, usually hidden in 8-10 foot holes in the river bottom.
As the divers scour the water for fish, a supply team wades through thorny undergrowth, scales vertical hills and plods through voracious bogs while following the divers along the river.
Stopping where they find enough flat space to work, the bag crew unloads a huge bag of supplies – labeling guns and sweeping wands, vials and super glue, and carefully labeled envelopes where researchers store fin clippings that unlock a vault of genetic knowledge about each fish caught.
From the water, divers would lift their catch, one at a time, to shore in their nets to be hung from a bar held high by the searchers – often groaning under the burden – and weighed.
Then the workers slide the unfortunate fish onto a wooden slab and measure it, from snout to tail.
Back in the water but still held securely, each fish suffers a rapid series of kicks and prods. Handheld wands beep if the fish has a shard of metal indicating it was raised at a nearby hatchery or a microchip embedded in its back.
The numbers tracked by these electronic tags help researchers create a large database of fish in the river.
The sturgeon tagging project, led by Michigan State University, tells researchers the information they need to protect the species, said Kim Scribner, a professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at MSU and one of the creators of the project 20 years ago.
“It’s quite an office,” Scribner said, walking between tree trunks along a muddy riverbank en route to tagging fish on Wednesday.
He joins the tagging team for several weeks each summer, enjoying, he says, the “bright eyes and bushy tails” of the young workers often employed to help record sturgeon data.
Wednesday’s team included college students and other young workers from the Upper Peninsula, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee and Manitoba, all earning hourly wages for wading in a river day after day, gathering information for help save a species.
The group cheered and teased as team member Andrew Julian caught his first sturgeon.
“It’s heavier than you think,” he said, pulling the fish into the water.
Larson, trying to extract spawning fluids from a male fish, sympathized with the squirming sturgeon.
“I can understand you wanting to go,” he told the fish. “But please wait.”
The researchers exclaimed in disbelief at several huge fish without built-in tags. Fish “new to science” — likely never before touched by humans, they said — were only about 9% of the river’s sturgeon untagged and tracked by researchers, Larson said.
As the searchers worked, volunteer sturgeon rangers — many of them bottom dwellers, happy to spend a few days or a week in the woods to protect a Michigan treasure from poachers — walked up to the group, eager to help. see a sturgeon.
Bellies smooth white, the once razor-sharp scales on their backs worn by time and the river, the huge creatures sometimes wriggled or flipped a fin as humans bustled around them.
News Photo by Julie Riddle Divers head to the Black River near Onway on Wednesday to look for sturgeon.
Most of the time, however, the giants stood still, harnessing their strength while the researchers conducted their studies, then, smiling, lifted each fish for a photo before returning it to the water.
Awkwardly long and impossibly heavy, gills blazing bright red, a female sturgeon shook her head impatiently as a river visitor tried to pull her out of the water.
Unaware of a friendly rubbing of its white belly, the fish only seemed to want to get back to the serious business of creating the next generation of sturgeons.
Around her, as she slipped into the water, people in waders collected their equipment and prepared to find the next fish.
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jriddleX.