Lake Sturgeon Restoration in the Upper Cumberland River Drainage in Kentucky
Adult Lake Sturgeon
drawing by Rick Hill
The Lake Sturgeon is considered critically imperiled in Kentucky. Historically, its native range included the entire Great Lakes and Mississippi River drainage. Most populations in the Ohio River and middle Mississippi River drainages have been drastically reduced or eliminated due to overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction, and impoundment of larger rivers. The Lake Sturgeon is a long-lived and late-maturing species. Individuals can live up to 150 years and grow to eight feet in length, weighing over 300 lbs. These fish are survivors of a prehistoric group which have several unique features, including a shark-like tail and armored plates (scutes) down the sides of the body. Sturgeon are benthic (bottom-dwelling) fish with four fleshy barbels in front of a protrusible mouth used to suck in soft-bodied invertebrates from sand and silt-covered bottoms of lakes and rivers.
Cumberland River at mouth of Laurel River, Whitley County, KY
In 2007, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) initiated a long-term project to restore a self-sustaining population of Lake Sturgeon to the upper Cumberland River drainage, where the species once occurred. The project area includes the Cumberland River drainage from Wolf Creek Dam (Lake Cumberland) upstream to Cumberland Falls. This section includes the Big South Fork and Rockcastle River, two major free-flowing tributaries. The KDFWR receives fertilized Lake Sturgeon eggs annually from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources taken from upper Mississippi River basin stock. These eggs are hatched at the Pfeiffer Fish Hatchery in Frankfort, KY, and the young are reared to approximately 7-8 inches prior to being stocked. Young Lake Sturgeon have been released annually since 2008 at two locations in the upper Cumberland River drainage including the mouth of Laurel River and Big South Fork at Alum Ford. All stocked Lake Sturgeon have been differentially marked by sequentially removing two adjacent scutes in the lateral series to distinguish year classes: right anterior scutes 2-3 for 2007, left anterior scutes 2-3 for 2008, right anterior scutes 3-4 for 2009, left anterior scutes 3-4 for 2010, and right anterior scutes 5-6 for 2011.
Lake Sturgeon Restoration Area
KY Lake Sturgeon Project Area Map photo
The Cumberland River from Lake Cumberland, upstream to Cumberland Falls in southeastern Kentucky. The last verified specimen of a Lake Sturgeon in the Upper Cumberland River drainage was in 1954.
Re-establishing the Lake Sturgeon to portions of its former range is necessary to prevent it from requiring Endangered Species Act protection in the future. Lake Sturgeon recovery is a long-term and slow process. A variety of sampling techniques are being evaluated to determine survival, habitat use, and movement patterns of stocked fish. A telemetry project will occur from 2012-2015 within the restoration area. KDFWR biologists will implant transmitters in 30 Lake Sturgeon to monitor habitat use and movement patterns. Twelve stationary receivers will also be placed within the restoration area to track large range movement patterns (KDFWR Annual Research Highlights.)
Juvenile Lake Sturgeon
The KDFWR has received numerous reports of anglers catching Lake Sturgeon since the inception of this restoration program. To date, all anglers that have reported catching Lake Sturgeon were fishing in the upper reaches of Lake Cumberland (mouth of Buck Creek and near Jasper Bend). Because this effort is to restore the species, the KDFWR has enacted a regulation (301 KAR 1:201) that makes it illegal to keep (possess) any Lake Sturgeon caught while recreational fishing. All Lake Sturgeon caught by anglers must be released.