Species spotlight: Lake sturgeon

March 18th, 2015 by
Where we take a moment to explore some of the unique and impressive species that call the Great Lakes home.
Skin like a shark, feeding habits akin to those of a whale, and a lifespan comparable to our own—the lake sturgeon is a peculiar species indeed. Found in large lakes and rivers, this toothless, whiskered bottom feeder is the largest, longest living, and one of the most ancient species in the Great Lakes. With an average length of 3-5 feet and a weight of 10-80 pounds, some lake sturgeon have grown to be 8 feet long and 300 pounds. Males typically live around 50 years while females’ lifespans range anywhere between 80-150. And with origins during the late cretaceous period, this species has remained relatively unchanged since the time of the triceratops and the tyrannosaurus rex.
The lake sturgeon’s skeleton is partly cartilaginous. Its body has no scales and is lined with five rows of bony plates called skutes—one on top and two rows along each side. Two pairs of fleshy sensory organs called barbels hang from its shovel-like snout like whiskers to help the lake sturgeon find prey. Its diet consists primarily of benthic organisms—small bottom-dwelling creatures like mussels, snails, crustaceans, aquatic insects—but they have been known to eat small fish. With no teeth, the lake sturgeon uses its snout to dig up whatever prey it finds and then sucks it up through its protractile mouth, filtering out sediment through its gills while digesting the organic material.
As hardy as the lake sturgeon may seem, its population suffered almost incalculable losses in the late 19th century. Initially thought of as a nuisance fish that damaged fishing equipment, lake sturgeon were slaughtered en masse. They’d be buried on shore or lined up to dry in the sun like stacks of timber and later used as fuel for steam ships due to the high oil content of their meat. Over time, lake sturgeon meat and eggs became prized commodities, leading to overfishing and an eventual collapse in population. 
Recovery has historically been a challenge due to the lake sturgeon’s naturally slow reproductive cycle, with males only reaching maturity around 15 years of age and females at closer to 20. This in combination with lake and river pollution, habitat loss, and dam activity blocking access to spawning grounds has lead to a long decline of lake sturgeon populations across the U.S. and Canada. As a result, lake sturgeon are listed as an endangered, threatened, or species of special concern by 19 of the 20 states where they are found. 
But in recent years, some populations have started to rebound. State and Canadian governments now enforce strict policies that limit the number of sturgeon caught each year. Spawning habitats have been constructed, watersheds have been stocked, and eggs have been raised in artificial cultures. People are also encouraged to report any sightings of lake sturgeon to help get a better idea of their numbers. 
***Photo by Great Lakes Aquarium 

2012 Chicago Wilderness Conference brings together environmental organizations

November 20th, 2012 by
Last week, representatives from over 260 member organizations, students, educators, were joined by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant staff at the Chicago Wilderness Congress 2012. The overall theme of the congress was “Shaping the Future of Regional Conservation,” and numerous presentations and panels offered information on green infrastructure, climate action, research, restoration, and more. 600 attendees from northeastern Illinois, northwest Indiana, and southeast Wisconsin helped make the event exciting and educational, bringing in examples of their conservation and environmental work.
IISG’s Caitie McCoy and EPA research fellow Nishaat Yunus presented “Making the Invisible Visible: Engaging Children in Sediment Remediation of the Grand Calumet River,” which fit into the coalition’s education initiative and focus. The presentation described an educational program at two schools in Northwest Indiana designed to connect local youth to the Grand Calumet River Area of Concern while building scientific literacy. One challenge was to make a seemingly “invisible” problem like contaminated sediment “visible” and relevant to children living near the river. The students participated in the educational program from early February to June 2012, and attended a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency press event about the Great Lakes Legacy Act in June. Through presentations, engaging activities, and field trips, more than 120 students in 4th and 9th grades became familiar with Great Lakes Legacy Act remediation and restoration work and important ecological concepts. The 4th grade students learned about habitats, sediment, pollution, and invasive species, and the 9th grade class learned how to perform data collection, analysis, and reporting with the water samples they collected on a field trip to the river.

At the congress, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant was also able to exhibit several education and outreach projects focused on community stewardship, including aquatic invasive species, proper pharmaceutical disposal, and habitat restoration, as well as program initiatives and accomplishments.

IISG’s Kristin TePas summed up the event by saying, “The Chicago Wilderness Congress was a great opportunity to connect with conservation practitioners in the Chicago region and to learn about the various projects occurring locally.”

You can read more about the conference, including detailed presentation descriptions, at the Chicago Wilderness website.

IISG staffers get their hands dirty for wetland restoration

September 4th, 2012 by

Last week, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant had a two-day meeting and retreat at the Indiana Dunes State Park in Chesterton, Indiana. In addition to devoting some time to planning and discussing current and future projects, we were treated to a couple of informative and scenic tours in the area, learning more about the extensive restoration work to protect the dunes, the state park and national lakeshore, and the water quality of Lake Michigan.
Staff members were able to join National Park Service workers on-site to learn about and get their hands dirty at the Great Marsh Restoration Site not far from the dunes. Once very large, the remaining Great Marsh area is approximately 12 miles long and harbors a wide range of plants, animals, insects, and other beneficial organisms. Those native species are threatened by invasive species, however, and work is ongoing to plant and establish native species to bolster the wetlands’ resistance to invasive species and restore the natural balance of the area. 
Informative, fun, and muddy, the chance to do on-the-ground work in restoring this watershed was a valuable experience for everyone involved, and offered a practical reminder of the importance of restoring and protecting these areas. 
There are more terrific photographs of the restoration project and the lake shore on Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant’s Facebook page. Head over and check them out, and be sure to plan a visit to the park for yourself.

Classroom specimens require caution and care to prevent becoming invasives

August 14th, 2012 by
Many educators incorporate plants and animals into their classrooms for educational purposes, but those plants and animals have the potential to become or transport invasive species to new areas. 
Our friends and colleagues at Oregon Sea Grant have more
“The study, led by Oregon Sea Grant Extension’s invasive species expert Sam Chan, was presented at this week’s national meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Portland.
‘Live organisms are a critical element for learning and we don’t want to imply that they should not be used in the classroom,’ said Chan. ‘But some of our schools – and the biological supply houses that provide their organisms – are creating a potential new pathway for non-native species to become invasive.’”
There is more information available at the link above, and at our page about safely disposing of classroom specimens.

Low rainfall isn’t necessarily a problem for your lawn

July 13th, 2012 by
Large portions of both Illinois and Indiana continue to experience very low rainfall and drought conditions, and many homeowners are wondering what to do about their lawns. With water in high demand, several  communities place watering schedules or restrictions in effect in order to conserve the available water. But what to do about your lawn? 
According to Richard Hentschel, a horticulture educator who works with our Lawn to Lake program, the simple answer is – nothing. 
From the Chicago Tribune
“’If your lawn is brown, it’s not dead,’ says Richard Hentschel, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator based in St. Charles ( ‘The grass has just hunkered down into survival mode. The plants have stopped growing and given up on their leaves to conserve water and are concentrating all their resources on keeping their roots and crowns alive.’”
Lawns are capable of surviving the conditions, but one area of concern is trees. 
“Lawns are easily replaced, but trees are not. Even large trees need help to survive a drought – and if they die, it can take 20 or 30 years to replace that shade. Stress from the 2005 drought killed trees over the next several years. So put trees at the top of the list for watering.
Let the hose trickle for a good long time in several places under the tree’s canopy. Or spiral a soaker hose loosely around a tree trunk. Or buy a soaker bag at the garden center that will slowly ooze water to the roots. Most of a mature tree’s roots are within 6 to 8 inches of the soil surface.”

Richard Hentschel and Rachel Rosenberg (who is also quoted in the article) are both involved in our Lawn to Lakes program, which provides information to retailers, homeowners, and landscapers about natural lawn care alternatives and their benefits.

For more information about gardens, lawns, and ways to maintain them in these conditions, head to the link above for the complete article, and find lawn care tips and specifics for Northern Illinois, including information about watering, drought conditions, weed issues, and more at the new Lawn Talk website.

Ecosystem restoration takes a big effort and big engineering

July 12th, 2012 by
One of the unsung agencies that is heavily involved in restoring coastal ecosystems just happens to be one of the biggest and most crucial – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and their Ecosystem Restoration Program are heavily involved in planning, developing, and executing projects that restore damaged ecosystems and areas and provide environmental benefits to communities, including several projects in and around the Great Lakes.
From the U.S. Army website
“The USACE works to restore degraded ecosystems to a more natural condition through large-scale ecosystem restoration projects, such as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration, Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration, Chesapeake Bay Oyster Recovery, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Beneficial Use of Dredged Material (restoration of marsh critical to the endangered Whooping Crane), and Houston Ship Channel Beneficial Use of Dredged Material (marsh restoration in Galveston Bay), and by employing system-wide watershed approaches to problem solving and management for smaller ecosystem restoration projects.”
Read more about this terrific program and about the substantial work that goes into these projects at the article linked above.
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