Endangered Fish Species Draws Attention of Vt. Researchers

Scientists eager to learn more about an endangered species of fish in Lake Champlain caught, examined and tagged rare lake sturgeon Thursday as part of an ongoing research project.

Lake sturgeon are an endangered species in Vermont, and they are the largest freshwater fish in Lake Champlain.

"We have the only remaining lake sturgeon population in New England here," noted Chet MacKenzie of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, along with scientists from the University of Vermont and the U.S. Geological Survey, were on the Winooski River Thursday, between the cities of Winooski and Burlington, where these giants come to spawn.

They set up nets to try to catch them to weigh, measure and tag the fish, and they netted two during the time NBC10 Boston was with the team.

Lake sturgeon are a prehistoric species. They can live 100 years or more, and can grow six or even seven feet long.

But they take two decades to mature sexually, were over-fished for generations and have struggled with habitat loss, so their numbers plummeted.

"We'd like to see them recovered so we can have a large, healthy population," MacKenzie said.

The work to catch and tag sturgeon is aimed at giving scientists a firmer sense of their population in the Lake Champlain basin.

The tags give researchers a better way to track the fish.

Right now, estimated numbers are really as murky as the waters of the Winooski. Anecdotally, fisherman seem to be spotting more of the endangered sturgeon and are reporting their finds to the state.

"I think it definitely is an encouraging sign what we've seen so far for the population," said Lisa Izzo, a PhD student researching sturgeon at the University of Vermont. "So we're hoping once we get a number, we get a better handle on if they're going up or staying stable."

"We're here hoping to do good, and make sure the fish stays here for a long time," added Donna Parrish, a U.S. Geological Survey employee who is also Izzo’s advisor at UVM's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.

As the study continues, conservationists are pleading with anglers to join their renewed push for protection — asking them to release any sturgeon they may accidentally catch immediately. Not doing so is illegal, and could further threaten this ancient fish, MacKenzie said.

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