Lake Sturgeon

Acipenser fulvescens Rafinesque, 1817

Lake Sturgeon

Class
Actinopterygii (Ray-finned Fishes)
Family
Acipenseridae (Sturgeons)
State Protection
Threatened
Listed as Threatened by New York State: likely to become Endangered in the foreseeable future. For animals, taking, importation, transportation, or possession is prohibited, except under license or permit. For plants, removal or damage without the consent of the landowner is prohibited.
Federal Protection
Not Listed
State Conservation Status Rank
S2S3
Imperiled or Vulnerable in New York - Very vulnerable, or vulnerable, to disappearing from New York, due to rarity or other factors; typically 6 to 80 populations or locations in New York, few individuals, restricted range, few remaining acres (or miles of stream), and/or recent and widespread declines. More information is needed to assign either S2 or S3.
Global Conservation Status Rank
G3G4
Vulnerable globally, or Apparently Secure - At moderate risk of extinction, with relatively few populations or locations in the world, few individuals, and/or restricted range; or uncommon but not rare globally; may be rare in some parts of its range; possibly some cause for long-term concern due to declines or other factors. More information is needed to assign either G3 or G4.

Summary

Did you know?

The Lake Sturgeon averages about 5 feet long, with some older individuals exceeding 7 feet, which makes it the largest completely freshwater fish in New York. Some individuals can live 80 or more years.

State Ranking Justification

Lake Sturgeon have been historically overexploited for caviar and smoked fish industries, as well as collected for oil and swim bladders (Smith 1985). These fish take a long time to reach maturity and females and sometimes males do not spawn every year, which makes recovery long and difficult. There have been habitat alteration affecting its range and food resources which have further led to the decline and slow recovery (Smith 1985, Holst 2023). Although there may be extant populations in as many as 10 separate waters, it is unclear if spawning is occurring in all of these.

Short-term Trends

The short-term trend for Lake Sturgeon appears to be stable or increasing. These fish were found in 18 waterbodies prior to 1993 and are currently known from 16. With restoration and reintroduction programs and improved management, the long-term decline has slowed in some areas with several stable or recovering populations that are self-sustaining (NYS DEC 2022, NatureServe 2023).

Long-term Trends

The long-term trend for Lake Sturgeon is declining. It is estimated that the species is now approximately 1 percent of its former abundance, with the abundance originally declining drastically in the late 1800s. The species was abundant and an important commercial species but declined significantly until it was considered rare in the early 1900s. The Great Lakes-Upper St. Lawrence population lost more than a quarter of the historic populations, and only half of remaining populations are considered stable or recovering (NatureServe 2023).

Conservation and Management

Threats

There are many threats facing Lake Sturgeon contributing to their vulnerability. Such threats might include roadway and agricultural runoff, industrial pollution, dams, bridge construction and maintenance, logging activities, and development near riparian habitats (NYS DEC 2005). In addition, siltation decreases the amount of sunlight lowers the quality of habitats needed for a variety of aquatic species (NYS DEC 2005), and can particularly affect Lake Sturgeon spawning habitats. Point source pollution, such as effluents from municipal and industrial facilities, contribute to the degradation and pollution of aquatic habitats (EPA 2022, NYS DEC 2005, Mahar and Landry 2013, Strayer et al. 2004).
Altering natural waterflow can degrade habitat and restrict species movement. Dams directly restrict or impede species movement, alter the flow of water, change the water temperature, and contribute to sedimentation (NYS DEC 2005, Zaidel et al. 2021).
Approximately 10% of introduced, non-native species could have an impact on the health of ecosystems (McCormick et al. 2009). Aquatic invasive plants and animals can alter the water chemistry, change the nutrient regime, or decrease the dissolved oxygen levels. Introduced fish can alter trophic relationships resulting in a change in native fish populations and decreased water quality (McCormick et al. 2009). Round Goby and Sea Lamprey are threats to the Lake Sturgeon. Round Goby are predators of sturgeon eggs, and Sea Lamprey will increase juvenile mortality (Holst 2023).
Climate change is another threat that is likely to have lasting effects on riverine systems. Irregular weather patterns can cause extreme drought, flooding, and temperature fluctuations. Heat waves are expected to be more intense (Frankson et al. 2022). The Northeast Region of the United States is expected to experience an increase in precipitation, more frequent storms, and higher than normal temperatures (EPA 2016, EPA 2022). Precipitation is expected to increase 10% to 15% in southern New York and 15 to 20% in northern New York by 2050 (Frankson et al. 2022). Extreme flooding can cause widespread erosion and runoff with added risk of contamination if flooding occurs at remediation sites, industrial sites, or wastewater treatment facilities (EPA 2016, EPA 2022).
Temperature increases can significantly alter ecosystems. As water temperatures rise, the amount of dissolved oxygen decreases and evaporation increases, potentially lowering lake and stream levels (EPA 2022). Any combination of these events could change species distributions (EPA 2022) and those that cannot adapt or migrate may be extirpated from some areas (NYS DEC 2005). Lake Sturgeon were accessed for predicted climate change vulnerability and were classified as “extremely vulnerable” (Schlesinger et al. 2011)

Conservation Strategies and Management Practices

Protect water quality and reduce contamination and hydrological alteration (such as agricultural or road runoff, shoreline development, and damming) (NYS DEC 2005). Protect stream quality by maintaining both a riparian buffer that includes herbaceous and/or woody vegetation along the shoreline, and a significant forested buffer. These buffers reduce sediment and contaminant runoff (EPA 2005, NYS DEC 2005, Souza et al. 2020), provide shade, regulate temperature, and provide organic matter to animals (Hughes and Vadas 2021). Riparian zones with herbaceous and woody vegetation have high “indicator scores” for macroinvertebrates and fishes (Hughes and Vadas 2021).
Remove barriers to maintain or restore natural flow to waterways. Where removal is not possible, research alternatives that allow flow above and below a barrier.
Climate change is a global challenge. However, there are local actions that can help mitigate extreme weather events. Improving industrial and municipal infrastructure to reduce stormwater runoffand improve floodwater management can increase habitat resiliency to flooding events (EPA 2016, NYS Comptroller 2023).
Ensure that existing bridges, dams, levees, seawalls, retaining walls, and wind barriers are prepared for extreme weather (NYS Comptroller 2023). Decrease runoff and erosion severity by installing large culverts, planting vegetation along riverbanks, and protecting and restoring wetlands (EPA 2016, NYS Comptroller 2023).
The current Lake Sturgeon Recovery Plan has several additional protection and management actions listed that need to be taken to recover the statewide populations. That Plan notes that fishing regulations must continue to be enforced and angling mortality must be minimized through public education. Propagation of sturgeon should continue as needed, while spawning habitat should be enhanced or restored where appropriate (NYS DEC 2018)

Research Needs

Sampling methods to estimate recruitment rates and for sampling juvenile Lake Sturgeon specifically are needed. Research into the location of spawning and juvenile aggregation areas is also necessary. In addition to those, a non-lethal method for contaminant load assessment of Lake Sturgeon and their eggs needs to be developed (NYS DEC 2018).

Habitat

Habitat

Lake Sturgeon live in lakes and large rivers, primarily at depths of 5-10 meters and they prefer a mud, sand, or gravel substrate. Spawning in rivers occurs at shallower depths in areas with swift current, waterfalls, or rapids where the fish cannot migrate upstream, with a range of substrate such as gravel, boulders, or hard-pan clay. Spawning in lakes occurs on rocky edges or shoals with wave action. For their first year, young fish form large schools over gravel and sand bar areas (Holst 2023)

Associated Ecological Communities

  • Great Lakes aquatic bed* (guide)
    The aquatic community of the protected shoals of the Great Lakes or Lake Champlain. They occur in quiet bays that are protected from extreme wave action by islands, shoals, or barrier bars, and typically support large areas of "weeds" or aquatic macrophytes.
  • Mesotrophic dimictic lake* (guide)
    The aquatic community of a lake that is intermediate between an oligotrophic lake and a eutrophic lake. These lakes are dimictic: they have two periods of mixing or turnover (spring and fall); they are thermally stratified in the summer, and they freeze over and become inversely stratified in the winter.
  • Summer-stratified monomictic lake* (guide)
    The aquatic community of a lake that is so deep (or large) that it has only one period of mixing or turnover each year (monomictic), and one period of stratification. These lakes generally do not freeze over in winter (except in unusually cold years) or form only a thin or sporadic ice cover during the coldest parts of midwinter, so the water circulates and is isothermal during the winter.

* probable association but not confirmed.

Range

New York State Distribution

Lake Sturgeon are present in 9 of 18 watersheds in New York, including the Lake Champlain, St. Lawrence River, Lake Erie/Niagara River, and Lake Ontario. They spawn in the lower reaches of the Oswegatchie, Grass, Raquette, and Oswego rivers

Global Distribution

Lake Sturgeon are found in Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba in Manitoba, Canada east to Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River south to Alabama and Northern Mississippi. Lake Sturgeon are extirpated from North Dakota and West Virginia (NYSDEC 2023).

Identification Comments

Identifying Characteristics

Lake Sturgeon juveniles are a brownish gray with clear green on the lower parts of the head and body. When juveniles are less than 300 mm they have a pair of dark blotches on top of the snow and a pair behind the pectoral fin, and a smaller pair below the dorsal fin at the same level. Smaller juveniles also have prominent black spots on their head and body. These black and brown spots start to fade when a fish reaches one to two feet long and completely disappear by the time the fish is 40 inches long. Adults are a uniform dull gray, and in older individuals the ventral scutes disappear (Smith 1985).
These sturgeons have four barbels, and the longer outer pair reaches back to the upper lip. The dorsal fin is far back near the tail fin, and the anal fin is below the middle of the dorsal fin base. The anal and pectoral fins are pointed, and the pelvic fins are well in front of the dorsal fin origin and bluntly pointed (Smith 1985).

Behavior

Lake Sturgeon are slow to reach maturity, averaging 8 to 13 years, with first spawning occurring between 14 to 23 years for females and 8 to 19 years for males. After beginning to spawn, females only spawn once every 4 to 6 years while males spawn every year or every other year (NYS DEC 2018). A large, mature female can potentially produce up to three million eggs (Smith 1985).

Diet

Lake Sturgeon eat a wide variety of invertebrates and some fish.

Best Time to See

Lake Sturgeon spawning occurs April through June (Lee et al. 1980, Page and Burr 1991, Froese and Pauly 2014). Exact timing varies widely between years because it is dependent on water temperatures.

  • Active
  • Reproducing

The time of year you would expect to find Lake Sturgeon active and reproducing in New York.

Similar Species

  • Shortnose Sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum) (guide)
    Shortnose Sturgeon have dorsal and lateral scutes that stand out as lighter than the background color of the body. Shortnose Sturgeons do not exceed 3.5 feet, while Lake Sturgeon can grow to be over 7 feet long.

Lake Sturgeon Images

Taxonomy

Lake Sturgeon
Acipenser fulvescens Rafinesque, 1817

  • Kingdom Animalia
    • Phylum Craniata
      • Class Actinopterygii (Ray-finned Fishes)
        • Order Acipenseriformes (Paddlefishes, Spoonfishes, and Sturgeons)
          • Family Acipenseridae (Sturgeons)

Additional Resources

References

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2005. Protecting water quality from agricultural runoff. https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2015-09/documents/ag_runoff_fact_sheet.pdf.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2016. Adapting to climate change northeast. https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2016-07/documents/northeast_fact_sheet.pdf.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2022. Region 2 climate adaptation implementation plan. https://www.epa.gov/system/files/documents/2022-10/bh508-R02%20Climate%20Adaptation%20Implementation%20Plan%209.19.2022%20HQ%20OP%20Copy.pdf

Frankson, R., Kunkel, K.E., Champion, S.M., Stewart, B.C., Sweet, W, DeGaetano, A.T., & Spaccio, J. (2022). New York State Climate Summary 2022. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Centers for Environmental Information. https://statesummaries.ncics.org/chapter/ny/

Froese, R. and D. Pauly. Editors. 2014. Fishbase. World wide web electronic publication. www.fishbase.org.

Holst, Lisa. 2023. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation species status assessment for Lake Sturgeon (updated January 2023).

Hughes, Robert M., and Robert L. Vadas Jr. 2021. Agricultural Effects on Streams and Rivers: A Western USA Focus. Water 13, no. 14: 1901. https://doi.org/10.3390/w13141901

Lee, D. S., C. R. Gilbert, C. H. Hocutt, R. E. Jenkins, D. E. McAllister, and J. R. Stauffer, Jr. 1980. Atlas of North American freshwater fishes. North Carolina State Museum of Natural History, Raleigh, North Carolina. i-x + 854 pp.

Mahar, Amy and Jenny Landry. 2013. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation species status assessment for Lasmigona subviridis (Green Floater).

McCormick, Frank H., Glen C. Contreras, and Sherri L. Johnson. 2009. "Effects of nonindigenous invasive species on water quality and quantity." A dynamic invasive species research vision: opportunities and priorities 29 (2009): 111-120.

NatureServe. 2023. NatureServe Network Biodiversity Location Data accessed through NatureServe Explorer [web application]. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia. Available https://explorer.natureserve.org/.

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. New York Natural Heritage Program Databases. Albany, NY.

New York State Comptroller. 2023. New York's local governments adapting to climate change: challenges, solutions, and costs. https://www.osc.state.ny.us/files/local-government/publications/pdf/climate-change-2023.pdf

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC). 2022. Lake Sturgeon Population Assessment Report 2021. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Albany, NY. 19 pp.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. 2005. A strategy for conserving New York's fish and wildlife resources. Final submission draft.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. 2018. Lake Sturgeon Recovery Plan 2018-2024, Albany, NY 46pp.

Smith, C.L. 1985. The Inland Fishes of New York State. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Albany, NY. 522pp.

Souza, Francine N., Rodolfo Mariano, Tassio Moreia, and Sofia Campiolo. 2020. Influence of the landscape in different scales on the EPT community (Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera and Trichoptera) in the Atlantic Forest region. Environmental monitoring and assessment 129: 391-391.

Strayer, David L., J.A. Dowling, W.R. Haag, T.L. King, J.B. Layzer, T.J. Newton and S.J. Nichols. 2004. Changing perspectives on Pearly Mussels, North America's most Imperiled Animals. BioScience 54:429-439.

Watershed Agricultural Council Forestry Program. 2018. New York State forestry voluntary best management practices for water quality. http://nysbmpguidelines.com/. Accessed on June 20, 2023.

Zaidel, Peter A., A. H. Roy, K. M. Houle, B. Lambert, B. H. Letcher, K. H. Nislow, C. Smith. 2021. Impacts of small dams on stream temperature. Ecological indicators 120:6-11.

Links

About This Guide

This guide was authored by: Ashley R. Ballou

Information for this guide was last updated on: January 2, 2024

Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. Online Conservation Guide for Acipenser fulvescens. Available from: https://guides.nynhp.org/lake-sturgeon/. Accessed July 19, 2024.