The lake sturgeon is an awesome fish: It grows to be 12 or 13 feet long and lives for 120 years or longer. One of the world’s most primitive fish, it’s known as a living dinosaur. When the native Haudenosaunee, who fished the lake sturgeon from the St. Lawrence River, its tributaries and the Great Lakes for thousands of years, wanted to describe the fish, they talked about how fishermen paddling their canoes would look over the side of their boat and see one big eye.
Today, the lake sturgeon are declining, due to the cumulative effect of dams, pollution from heavy industry and zebra mussels and other invasive species. But a unique project that’s bringing together the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe – based at the Akwesasne reservation, which straddles the border between New York and Canada – and a research team with state-of-the-art river sensor technology from the Beacon Institute is attempting to save the endangered fish. While Native American tradition and scientific know-how are usually thought of as diametrically opposed, the project is demonstrating that both types of knowledge are actually complementary and can be very effective when combined.
On Thursday, June 19 at 7 pm, James Bonner, PhD, who is chief research officer for the Beacon Institute, and Henry Lickers, a biologist who is environmental science officer of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Environment Program, will give a talk at the Beacon Institute’s Center for Environmental Innovation and Education on how tradition and technology are being deployed on the St. Lawrence to help save the lake sturgeon. The free talk will be moderated by Frank Geer, fly fisherman and pastor of St. Philip’s Church in Garrison.
Bonner, a nationally recognized expert in real-time water-monitoring technologies, who is also based at Clarkson University, is leading the development and implementation of the River and Estuary Observatory Network, or REON, which is being used to provide a better understanding of river and estuary ecosystems with real-time data. When the British built the first dams in the St. Lawrence watershed in the late 1700s to better navigate and move logs along the waterways, it established an unfortunate pattern. So it’s ironic, and rather wonderful, that technology is now being used to help restore the habitat.
An array of chemical and biological sensors “allow us to chart the environment with more temporal and spatial resolution than ever before,” Bonner said, noting that previously the adverse effect of turbidity on contaminated river sediments could only be measured in the lab, which could not precisely mimic the on-site effects. Today, the technology enables scientists to characterize and measure hydrodynamics in real time.
Bonner is using the tools to describe and assess sturgeon habitat, such as the spawning grounds near a dam in the Grasse River. “The sturgeon spawn there quite well. We need to carefully characterize the physical conditions, hydrology and sediments, so that we can mimic those conditions at another site,” and hence expand the spawning habitat, Bonner said. He noted that “a lot of physical attributes have to be aligned well” for the sturgeon to lay their eggs: a calm expanse of river, where the sturgeon congregate, downstream from an area of rapids with a rocky bottom, where they deposit their eggs, which catch in the crevices.