When the Milwaukee River Lake Sturgeon Reintroduction Project began 16 years ago, success wasn’t immediately apparent.
Having a solid scientific foundation for the project wasn’t the problem: sturgeon were raised in the Milwaukee River so they would return there to spawn when the time came. The problem was that lake sturgeon don’t return to a river to spawn for around 15 years. For a while, there was no way to tell if the project was working.
After releasing sturgeon into Lake Michigan year after year, Jessica Jens was thrilled when sturgeon started being caught. Due to pollution and overfishing, there hasn’t been a self-sustaining population in the Milwaukee River in over 100 years.
“It’s amazing and cool, because we’ve had to go through this entire 15 years to know if it was going to work,” Jens said.
Those 15 years were filled with more than waiting, however. Jens is the executive director of Riveredge Nature Center, which has turned what might otherwise be a mundane DNR fish stocking into a community celebration called Sturgeon Fest.
Sturgeon Fest has all the characteristics of a traditional festival like food trucks and free family activities, just with a sturgeon twist. Festival events include a Native American blessing of the first fish before its release and a sturgeon dress-up contest for both people and pets to determine that year’s ‘Sturgeon General’.
But while these aspects of the festival are exciting, Jens said, the release of over a thousand sturgeon fry is the most important part.
“We do all these other fun things that make it a festival, but it’s really just about getting those fish in the water,” Jens said.
Anyone can sponsor a sturgeon for release for a $15 donation. Attendees receive their adopted sturgeon in a small bucket and are allowed to pick it up and release it into Lake Michigan themselves.
This year, Riveredge Nature Center is partnering with the Harbor District and the Milwaukee Riverkeeper to celebrate sturgeon, the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan all in one event. Because of that partnership, Jens said this year’s event will be extra special.
“Milwaukee Riverkeeper does a boat parade where people have boats that showcase the education and restoration efforts in the watershed, and the Harbor District has all kinds of great events,” Jens said. “There’s a lot of great both educational and hands-on activities for people of all ages.”
Because of their long lifespan, the sturgeon released at Sturgeon Fest will be positively impacting the ecosystem for years to come. For Jens and those who participate, it’s an opportunity to make a lasting impact.
“It’s just incredible to think about these fish we release every year that are going to outlive all of us. That catches people’s attention, it engages their curiosity and imagination, and it helps really connect people to the natural world,” Jens said.
Jens encourages families and people of all ages to come and enjoy the festival, especially those who haven’t been to the festival in the past or who are simply curious to learn about sturgeon. Attending the event might even become a family tradition like it is for Jens and many other perennial attendees.
“As far as traditions go, helping with the restoration of a prehistoric species is pretty cool,” she said.
This year’s Sturgeon Fest is on Sept. 19, and it’s just one of many sturgeon-related activities around the Great Lakes region. Great Lakes Now has compiled a list of some of those activities below.
Check it out on a map here or scroll down for a list:
Visit the At Home on the Great Lakes Exhibit at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, to see sturgeon and other species that make up the Great Lakes ecosystem. There’s even a sturgeon touch tank for visitors.
Celebrate the blue moon and sturgeon on Aug. 22 with a hike at Fox Island Park in Fort Wayne. Admission is $2 per person.
On Sunday, Aug. 22, the Blue Water Sturgeon Festival continues with the Sturgeon Moon Lighthouse Climb at the Fort Gratiot Lightstation in Port Huron. Food vendors, storytellers and presentations about sturgeon will also take place.
Each spring, volunteers are needed to monitor the banks of the Black River during spawning season and report violations to the DNR to help prevent sturgeon poaching.
During its 16-month COVID-19 shutdown, the Belle Aquarium invested $1.2 million in improvements to its exhibits. Sturgeon and other Great Lakes fish are now on display at the aquarium, which reopened on July 16. Admission is free.
Visit the freshwater habitat to see lake sturgeon and other species native to Michigan. The aquarium is located in Auburn Hills.
Friends of the St. Clair River: Adopt A Sturgeon
Support the lake sturgeon conservation efforts of the Friends of the St. Clair River by adopting a sturgeon. Participants are given a plush sturgeon with a unique ID tag and a certificate of adoption.
Sturgeon are just one of the many Great Lakes species on display at the Great Lakes Aquarium, located in Duluth.
Lake sturgeon are one of many species of fish and invertebrates to be discovered at the Aquarium of Niagara in Niagara Falls.
The Seneca Park Zoo is the midst of a multi-year transformation, and lake sturgeon and largemouth bass are some of the freshwater species on display. The zoo is located in Rochester.
Shovelnose sturgeon can be viewed alongside other native species in the Ohio Lakes and Rivers gallery.
The Promedica Museum of Natural History features a sturgeon touch tank that highlights the prehistoric nature of the sturgeon. Additionally, the annual sturgeon release is back on this year after being paused due to COVID-19 last year. The release will take place in early October, although there is no official date yet. Keep an eye on the zoo website for updates.
Visit the Canadian Waters Gallery to find 17 exhibits, including a Great Lakes exhibit with sturgeon on display. The aquarium is located in Toronto.
Celebrate the sturgeon with family-friendly activities in Milwaukee. There’s even an opportunity to sponsor a sturgeon and hand release it into the wild.
Reiman Aquarium at Discovery World
Discover the fish of the Great Lakes at the Reiman Aquarium, part of the Discovery World Science and Technology Center in Milwaukee. A sturgeon touch tank is just one part of the experience.
Catch more news on Great Lakes Now:
Short Season: Sturgeon spearing plays big role in conservation efforts for the ancient fish
Conservation Coordination: Black Lake sturgeon fishing highlights contrasts between Native and state approaches
Great Lakes Trails: Relief funds spark new investments into outdoor recreation
Citizen Science Opportunities: How can you get involved in scientific research?
Featured image: Attendees releasing sturgeon at the 2019 Sturgeon Fest (Photo Credit: Ed Makowski/Riveredge Nature Center)