The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is currently considering federal protections for lake sturgeon, one of the oldest and largest species of freshwater fish in the Great Lakes region. Following a lawsuit from the environmental activist group Center for Biological Diversity in 2018, a federal judge ordered the agency to decide on whether or not to list lake sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act by June 30, 2024. With that deadline quickly approaching, anglers in Wisconsin are speaking out on the matter.
Earlier this week, hundreds of sturgeon spearers attended a public forum in Stockbridge, Wisconsin, according to a WFRV article. The spear fisherman gathered in support of a bipartisan bill known as the Sturgeon Protected and Exempt from Absurd Regulations (SPEAR) Act, which would make Wisconsin’s lake sturgeon exempt from federal protections—and the fishing moratorium that this would entail.
“The things we experience here in terms of the spearing season and the culture around the fish is pretty far removed from what other states see,” explained Mitchell White, who is part of the Friendship Fishing Club. “Anybody who recreates on the lake in the winter season would feel this negatively. You [would] lose the money for research, for management, and for all of the things that have gotten us to this point. You are penalizing the groups that have worked to correct the population and get it to the historic level.”
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources currently hosts tightly managed hook and line and spearing seasons throughout the Badger State. “Nowhere in the world will you find such a unique cultural connection and staunch dedication to the preservation of sturgeon population levels than in Wisconsin,” wrote the group backing the SPEAR Act in a statement provided to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “In fact, due to such careful management, populations in the state thrive and allow for a sustainable spear harvest season on the Winnebago System every winter. We are concerned that a potential listing of the species under the Endangered Species Act could curtail this successful, science-based management model as well as threaten a cherished and unique Wisconsin tradition.”
The controversy over the proposed listing is reminiscent of disagreements over the management of terrestrial mammals in the West, particularly gray wolves and grizzly bears. Populations of both of those apex predators are currently listed under the ESA in some states. The Center for Biological Diversity, along with other environmental groups, also pushed for the ESA designations of those species.
According to the National Wildlife Federation, lake sturgeon can grow to 6.5 feet and live for up to 150 years. The species was once abundant throughout the Great Lakes but suffered from overfishing in the 1800s and early 1900s. Recent inter-agency conservation efforts of the species have proven successful, though lake sturgeon populations currently face added pressures from invasive species and climate change.