Sarah Peper, a fisheries biologist at the Missouri Department of Conservation, recently skipped church to attend a party on the banks of the Mississippi River near St. Louis. There was great cause to celebrate: Five lake sturgeon were observed spawning in the state for only the second time since 2015. For Peper, who has been studying the species for years, it was a critically important milestone—one that brings hope for the species’ survival.

“I dropped what I was doing and got over there as fast as I could,” Peper told STL Public Radio. “We had a little sturgeon spawning party on the shoreline. We were all just so excited.”

Lake sturgeon once flourished in Missouri’s large rivers, including the Mississippi. But in 1974, the Missouri Department of Conservation declared them a state endangered fish and banned their harvest. “By the early 1900s, their numbers were already getting low because of overharvest,” Peper said. “But then the changes we made to the river to improve navigation really destroyed a lot of habitat. When they get a one-two punch like that, it’s going to be really difficult for them to recover without some help.”

While lake sturgeon do not reach the mammoth size of white sturgeon, they can weigh 300 pounds and attain lengths of 8 feet. Their range extends from Hudson Bay and the St. Lawrence through the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River system, but they are listed as endangered in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. Last year, a federal court ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine by 2024 whether they should also be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

MDC launched a rearing and reintroduction program in 1984, in hopes of bringing the fish, which take 20 to 30 years to reach reproductive age, back from the brink. Peper’s team tags and tracks them to study where they travel before and after they reproduce in hopes of pinpointing specific habitats to protect. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supports the project by implementing engineering strategies that manipulate water flow and temperature to make it most conducive for spawning. 

For Peper, the coordination is a key step toward making the endangered fish self-sustaining in the Mississippi watershed once again. “Think of everything that’s happened over those 150 million years,” she said. “There was the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, continents crashing into each other and pulling apart, volcanoes, and earthquakes. These fish survived all of that. But they can’t survive us unless we do something about it.”