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A group of volunteers will shepherd Lake Michigan fish's journey upstream

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Attention all - mountain bikers, hikers, kayakers, campers, and general nature enthusiasts - the town of Cheboygan, Mich., is calling on nature lovers to help protect a vital lake fish. From April to June, lake sturgeon embark on their annual upstream journey along the Black River to spawn. That river feeds right into Lake Huron. And the Black Lake chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow have put out a call in search of this year's sturgeon guards. These volunteers will watch over Michigan's lake sturgeon to ensure they reach their spawning sites safely. Chapter President Jay Woiderski joins us now to discuss the program. Welcome to the show.

JAY WOIDERSKI: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: OK, for those who aren't into fish, what is a lake sturgeon, and why is it important to the Great Lakes ecosystem?

WOIDERSKI: Well, lake sturgeon are basically the dinosaur of the Great Lakes. They have been around for pretty much millions of years. They are bottom feeders. They clean up things off the bottom of the lake that are pretty much unwanted by us. They've been doing the job for us for many years.

RASCOE: And these fish can be really massive, right?

WOIDERSKI: They get up to better than 200 pounds and up to potentially 8 feet long.

RASCOE: Wow, wow. And they live a long time?

WOIDERSKI: Yeah. Some of them have been recorded well over a hundred years.

RASCOE: And so where did the idea for sturgeon guards come from? How long has it been going on?

WOIDERSKI: Well, back in 1997, the DNR did a lake survey in our neighborhood and showed a huge decline in the numbers. We, as the fishermen that used to fish sturgeon, got together and decided that we would do whatever it takes to keep our fishing season alive, formed a group, went down to Lansing, met with the DNR commissioners, and volunteered to help in any way we could. And that is when sturgeon guarding became a program.

RASCOE: And when you say DNR, you're talking about the Department of Natural Resources?

WOIDERSKI: Yes.

RASCOE: OK. What is it exactly that these volunteer sturgeon guards do?

WOIDERSKI: Basically, we have sites along the river that we put people at, mostly just to be visible out there so that people do not come in to poach them. That was one of the biggest problems with the reduction in the number of sturgeon through the years. People were taking them out while they were in there spawning.

RASCOE: Oh, OK, 'cause they were easier to grab at that point?

WOIDERSKI: Exactly.

RASCOE: OK. And so is it illegal to do that?

WOIDERSKI: It is absolutely illegal. Since sturgeon season opened, there was a regulated season, and it was the month of February.

RASCOE: Have you found that the program - does that work?

WOIDERSKI: It sure does.

RASCOE: How do you convince people to do this when, you know - let's face it - this isn't really a pretty fish?

WOIDERSKI: Well, you know, they say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and sturgeon are actually a very beautiful fish in my eyes. But convincing people is really pretty easy. A lot of people don't get the chance to be out in nature just being there. The upper Black River is a very scenic place to be. We get a lot of volunteers from a lot of places.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: That's Jay Woiderski, president of the Black Lake chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow. Thank you so much for being with us.

WOIDERSKI: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITNEY SONG, "LIGHT UPON THE LAKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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