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'This impacts our whole culture': Sturgeon spearers face potential endangered species designation

Posted at 7:01 PM, Feb 12, 2024

FOND DU LAC (NBC 26) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering putting lake sturgeon on the endangered species list. Sturgeon spearers on Lake Winnebago say this isn't necessary, and would hurt their way of life.

  • If lake sturgeon are classified as an endangered species, fishing them could be banned.
  • Scientists with the DNR say the sturgeon population is healthy.
  • Video shows how spearers are reacting.

Sturgeon spearing draws hundreds out onto Lake Winnebago every February, but some spearers said they fear this season may be their last.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting a nationwide review of lake sturgeon to determine whether they should be classified as an endangered species. If that happens, spearing on Lake Winnebago could be banned.

“This impacts our whole culture and way of life,” spearer Mitchell White said.The Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation nonprofit, said most lake sturgeon populations across the country are in jeopardy.

But, Margaret Stadig, a biologist with the Wisconsin DNR, said that's not the case in our state. She said the population increased in the 1980s and 1990s, and has remained stable since the 2000s.

“We've got a steady population that’s healthy enough to sustain a harvest season,” Stadig said.

This year, the DNR said the Winnebago Lake system had about 40,000 sturgeon, which they said has been roughly the same for the past two decades.

But, the federal review takes into consideration numbers across the country.

“It would really feel like our state got caught in the crossfire of it having a listing that was based on other places, and not our science, and not our biological data that the DNR provided,” White said. “That would really sting, especially with all the work that's been done throughout the years to bring the surgeon back to those historic levels that they're at right now.”

White said he's been working with Wisconsin lawmakers to urge the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to make the endangered classification, or to exempt Lake Winnebago from any restrictions that would come with it.

The center of biological diversity petitioned to have lake sturgeon added to the endangered list. But, the group also said it’s not against a Lake Winnebago exemption, given the healthy population in the system.

“Ultimately we have the same goals as sturgeon anglers, which are healthy rivers, clean water, and abundant fish populations,” Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will finish their investigation in June, and White says he plans to send a petition with more than 600 signatures to them this week.