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Lake sturgeon are one of the most distinctive looking fish in Oneida Lake, and look almost prehistoric. Adults are a dull gray color that is darker on the back and lighter towards the belly, while juvenile sturgeon are a brownish gray that fades to green on the lower parts of the head and body. Lake sturgeon have ridges known as “shields” down their back and on each of their sides, and have two smooth lobes on the lower lip. Additionally, they have sharp, wide, cone-shaped mouths with four smooth barbels (whiskers) on the underside.
Lake sturgeon are found primarily in large lakes and rivers, and they prefer habitats with clean sand, gravel, or rock bottoms where food is abundant. In New York, they are found in the St. Lawrence, Niagara, Grasse, Oswego, and Oswegatchie Rivers, in Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Champlain, in Cayuga and Oneida Lakes, and in the Seneca & Cayuga canals. They eat a variety of organisms including insects (especially mayflies and midge larvae), crayfish, snails, clams, other invertebrates, small fish, and even algae. Here in Oneida Lake, lake sturgeon enjoy a diet of amphipods, isopods, caddisflies, leeches, zebra mussels, snails, and clams.
Lake sturgeon spawning occurs from May to June, and females will only spawn once every four to six years. Spawning occurs in places like the rocky shoals off an island or in the rapids of a stream. Prior to spawning, adults form groups in deep holes where they may perform “staging” displays. These displays are characterized by rolling near the bottom, then leaping out of the water and landing with a loud splash. After mating, the eggs are scattered by currents and stick to rocks and logs for 5 to 8 days when they will hatch. Young sturgeon grow rapidly, reaching 7.5 inches by the end of the first year. Growth continues throughout a sturgeon’s life, but significantly slows when they reach maturity at around 10 years old.
At one time, lake sturgeon were so abundant they were considered a trash fish and a nuisance. The sturgeon’s rough skin ruined nets, so fishermen would stack them on shore to let them rot or to burn them. As the value of sturgeon eggs for caviar, skin for leather, swim bladders for isinglass, and delicious meat became known, the Great Lakes fishery exploded. Soon after, sturgeon population levels plummeted and lake surgeon is now threatened or endangered in all states where it occurs, including in New York. Construction of dams and pollution were other reasons for population declines. In 1995 NYSDEC began a sturgeon hatchery program, and Oneida Lake received almost 8,000 juvenile fish between 1995 and 2004.
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