Locals around Lake Champlain know well and joke often about the stories of Champ, a mythical monster of our deep blue lake. Along with a bevy of fanciful explanations for Champ sightings (cousin to Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster, among the most imaginative!), one wild possibility is that the large humped back that various boaters have reported seeing on the surface of Lake Champlain is at least sometimes the dorsal fin of a Lake Sturgeon.
This should be thrilling enough! For sadly, Lake Sturgeon are vanishingly rare in our beloved but beleaguered lake. Icthyologists report that on the rare occasions when sturgeon are still seen or captured in Lake Champlain, they are old individuals; and that there is little if any evidence of ongoing breeding for these long-lived but slow-reproducing fish from the depths. Reasons for the decline of Lake Sturgeon and several other big fish of Lake Champlain, including Lake Trout, Landlocked Atlantic Salmon, and American Eel, are only partly known. Problems probably include the damages from dams on the rivers that drain into and out of Lake Champlain (including the outlet, the Richelieu River, which drains north to the Saint Lawrence, but has been fragmented by two dams); past overfishing of some popular “game” species; pollution; and the cascading effects from diminishment of certain other key species.
New York is actually blessed with three sturgeon species: Lake, Atlantic, and Short-nosed. Both the Atlantic and Short-nosed Sturgeons, like many members of the family Acipenseridae, live mostly in marine and/or brackish waters, but swim up rivers every few years to spawn in fresh water. Before the damming of the Hudson River, these sturgeon may have ascended well into what is now the Adirondack Park to spawn. As with nearly all of the two-dozen-plus sturgeon species in North America and Eurasia, they are threatened by habitat destruction, dams, pollution, and exploitation.
Lake Sturgeon spawn in May or June in large rivers, on stone or sand shallows. Females mature at 14 to 26 years of age then spawn every 4 or 5 years. Sturgeon live long and grow large, if protected. Reportedly, one individual Lake Sturgeon taken from south-central Canada’s Lake of the Woods was 154 years old and weighed 208 pounds; another from Lake Superior weighed 310!
Lake Sturgeon prefer large water bodies and usually stay near the bottom, but occasionally breach vigorously, perhaps to keep groups together. This might explain some reported Champ sightings. They overwinter in deep, well-oxygenated water. They eat crustaceans, worms, insects, and mollusks—including Zebra Mussels. New York lists the Lake Sturgeon as Threatened; Vermont lists it as Endangered.
One line of speculation for the decline of some large fish suggests that Sea Lamprey are now unnaturally abundant in Lake Champlain because American Eel may have been their major predators and eel have been drastically reduced due to dams in the Lake Champlain Basin; and in turn lamprey may now be harming large fish by parasitizing them. In another possible trophic cascades story, I heard a biologist once wonder aloud if Double-crested Cormorants have grown overpopulated since Harbor Seals were eliminated from Lake Champlain. Seals would have hauled out on islands and islets of the lake, likely crushing cormorant nests and possibly even eating their eggs. Might the elimination of Harbor Seals have had reverberations throughout the lake adversely affecting some large fish populations?
Respecting Our Lake and River Neighbors
A theme of these wildlife accounts is peaceful coexistence with and greater appreciation of our wild neighbors. How, though, can we learn to live benevolently with respect to aquatic species we never see and whose life cycles are poorly understood? We may not know enough to answer that question, but we can adopt a few general guidelines for supporting healthy natural communities in Lake Champlain and its tributaries:
Minimize pollution. Lake Champlain Committee has produced thorough reports on how to reduce phosphorous run-off and other pollutants in the lake. Among crucial steps are protecting broad forested riparian buffers along streams and shorelines; favoring organic farming practices; keeping livestock away from waterways; and preventing run-off from lawns and roads.
Avoid spreading invasive species. Here the culprits are sometimes motor-boats or released bait-fish and worms. Always check to make sure you do not have organic material on any boat or boot you are about to put into a wild water body.
Favor conservation and restoration of native fish and other aquatic species over “game fish” management. Fish & game departments all over the country have compromised the integrity of lakes and rivers by stocking fish that we humans like to catch. Fishing can be a sustainable and enjoyable way of hunting food, but it should be managed not to augment introduced species but to restore native fish populations—including those Champs of our biggest water body, Lake Sturgeon.
Note: The content in this blog post was repurposed and a revised version is included in John Davis’s book Split Rock Wildway: Scouting the Adirondack Park’s Most Diverse Wildlife Corridor published by Essex Editions on Nov. 21, 2017. Learn more about the book and where to buy it at essexeditions.com. Watch the book trailer below.