As sturgeon spawn, volunteers ensure safe passage from poaching
Brenda Archambo saw a lake sturgeon for the first time ice fishing with her grandfather, when she was just six years old.
“We heard a commotion," Archambo said. "We opened the door in the fish shanty and saw people running over. That's where the sturgeon was laying on the ice.”
She said she remembers locking eyes with the fish.
“I never forgot it because it looked like looking into the eyes of a dinosaur,” Archambo said.
30 years later – Archambo came across the lake sturgeon again in the 90s.
The fish was listed as a threatened species – its numbers had plummeted by more than 60 percent, and Michigan was drafting a sturgeon management plan.
Living on Black Lake, Archambo had personally witnessed the sturgeon’s decline.
“I wrote a letter to the director of the DNR at the time, and said, as you move forward with this, we want to have a seat at the table because we are stakeholders here,” Archambo said.
When the state finally did release its plan to protect the sturgeon, Archambo was disappointed.
“They were going to close down all harvest and come back in 10 years," Archambo said. "We're like, that is just not acceptable. If there's a problem, we need to deal with it right here and right now - and not wait 10 years.”
That’s when Archambo and dozens of sturgeon-lovers across the state decided to take matters into their own hands.
They formed the group, Sturgeon for Tomorrow. And for years, they continued to lobby the state for more protection and collaboration with residents.
Sturgeon for Tomorrow also started its own conservation programs. The sturgeon guard was their first initiative.
The group started organizing volunteers to stand watch over a 6-mile stretch of the river, along with law enforcement and other organizations, as a “show of presence” to any potential poachers.
She said before they started guarding, people would stand in the river during the spawning season, spear sturgeon, and haul off truckloads of them.
It takes male sturgeon at least 15 years and female sturgeon, 20, to be able to spawn. So, taking out these adults doesn't bode well for the overall population.
“That kind of really put it put our feet to the fire and we said let's do something," Archambo said. "Here we are today, and we've made a big difference.”
The guard program is now in its 24th year. Archambo said it took years of advocacy, but today, Sturgeon For Tomorrow works closely with state and tribal governments on a number of conservation programs like the annual sturgeon shivaree, Sturgeon in the Classroom, and the Black River hatchery.
“This road we're on only goes to the river twice, and both of those places are where those fish breed," said Mary Paulson, the volunteer coordinator with Sturgeon for Tomorrow.
She shows me where volunteers are set up on their watch.
“Here we sit, making it a public spectacle, and making those fish safe,” Paulson said.
Paulson said she’s received nearly 400 emails this year from people asking to volunteer.
“Some people would think, 'what do I care?'" Paulson said. "And there's this nice little herd of people who do care, and they come and help me. I mean, it's such hard work, sitting here, you know, relaxing by the river.”
Laurie Wyatt and Trudy Anderson are sisters, who made the two-day trip from Iowa just to volunteer. They said there’s not many sturgeon in Iowa, so they got some strange looks when they made matching t-shirts that said, “sisters for sturgeon” and drove off to a state they’ve never visited.
“They just are such a cool fish," Wyatt said. "They've just been on this earth for so long, and they've seen all the things happen. And they just keep doing their sturgeon thing.”
The sisters said they fell in love with sturgeon at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and learned of the guard program through the aquarium’s newsletter.
Wyatt: If you don't want to care about sturgeon, care about some other aspect of the environment.
Anderson: We’d be crabby old women if we don't care about anything. ‘Damn kids get off my lawn!’ - I don't want to be that old lady.
Wyatt & Anderson: [So instead, we're telling poachers] to get off the fish.
Brenda Archambo saw a sturgeon for the first time while ice fishing with her grandfather.
30 years later, she was advocating for its protection, and her grandfather was on his deathbed.
“We knew he was dying," Archambo said. "We were talking about sturgeon. And he took my hand and he said, ‘you do what you need to do to keep that sport alive.’ And that put a fire in my belly.”
In large part due to community efforts, the Black Lake sturgeon population is now up to almost 1,200 fish. That’s more than double of what it was 25 years ago when Archambo first wrote to the DNR.
Archambo said the sturgeon’s rebound is a testament as to what people can accomplish when they care, and she believes there will be a day when the guard program is no longer necessary.
For more information about lake sturgeon conservation, visit Sturgeon For Tomorrow's website.