Kids raise prehistoric fish as a science lesson


Big Randy, the sturgeon in Katie Bryant’s seventh grade class, pictured in its tank at LakeVille Middle School. The class is one of several Michigan science classrooms that incorporate the sturgeon into its curriculum, using it to teach kids about conservation and natural resources. Image: Katie Bryant

By Jack Armstrong

Sturgeon can live 50 years or more in rivers and lakes, but the first six months of one sturgeon’s life will be spent in Katie Bryant’s seventh grade science classroom.

Jay Woiderski recently walked into LakeVille Middle School with a small fish in a plastic bag. He dropped the bag into a 75 gallon tank and waited for the temperature to equalize. Then, he opened the bag and let the fish out.

The fish, Katie Bryant’s class and the middle schoolers in LakeVille, Michigan  are participants in the state’s “Sturgeon in the Classroom” program. Schools raise a young sturgeon to teach kids about conservation and environmental stewardship. About 10 schools participate every year.

“The kids really enjoy it,” Bryant said. “It’s a really good example of the harm that has been done to Michigan and the ways that people are going about mitigating the damage.”

Lake sturgeon, the oldest and largest native species in the Great Lakes, are endangered now, but were  once abundant in the region. They can live anywhere from 50 to 150 years and have been measured at up to six and a half feet. But overfishing and development decimated their numbers. Only 1% of lake sturgeon’s historical population survives today.

“Our sturgeon in the classroom program is basically our big educational outreach,” said Woiderski, president of Sturgeon for Tomorrow, a non-profit organization committed to the conservation of lake sturgeon and the originator of the classroom program. “The program is meant to educate and hopefully get everybody to fall in love with sturgeon the way I have since I was four years old, probably.”

Sturgeon for Tomorrow distributes a juvenile sturgeon to each participating school, and the students are responsible for raising it throughout the year. At LakeVille, Bryant’s 75 gallon tank sits at the front of the classroom. A nearby chiller keeps the water cold and a freezer holds bloodworms for sturgeon food. Bryant’s students are responsible for feeding the sturgeon and changing its water weekly.

“I’ll teach one kid how to feed the fish, and then that kid has to teach somebody else,” Bryant said.

Bryant teaches about the sturgeon’s anatomy, its place in the ecosystem and the fishing regulations associated with it. The fish is a good ambassador for conservation, she said. They’re a good indication of a healthy ecosystem.

She also teaches her students the importance of conserving natural resources and biodiversity.

“The hope is that if these kids tell their parents and those parents tell one other person, we’re letting a lot of people in Michigan know,” she said.

Right now, LakeVille’s sturgeon is smaller than the palm of your hand, but it’ll be around a foot long by the time Bryant’s students release it.

The Classroom

The kids love the program, and they’re “all about feeding the fish and taking care of the fish,” Bryant said.

Seventh grader Keegan Shrader feeds the sturgeon at LakeVille Middle School. Shrader and his classmates are responsible for caring for Big Randy this year. Image: Katie Bryant

Student’s reactions to the sturgeon are “absolutely huge,” Woiderski said, comparing it to a kid getting a new kitten.

Last year, Bryant’s students named their sturgeon “Grimace,” after fast food giant McDonald’s friendly purple character. Bryant said former students sometimes tell her they miss Grimace.

This year, her students named their fish “Big Randy.” Randy is especially active compared to previous sturgeons, Bryant said.

“They all have different personalities,” she said. “I had one one time that would just poke the top of the tank…sometimes they’re really chill and they just stay at the bottom, sometimes they swim around…get the zoomies and run into the side of the tank.”

Some sturgeons even disrupt lessons with their activity.

At the end of the school year, the release of the sturgeon becomes a community event. Students invite parents and grandparents as the class releases their fish into Cass River in Frankenmuth, a place free from the dams that interfere with sturgeon spawning.

“Then we walk over to Heritage Park and have a celebration,” Bryant said.

The Sturgeon

The lake sturgeon is one of the 27 species that make up the sturgeon family, which has been around for 200 million years. They have been swimming up streams and around lakes since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Lake sturgeon are easily identified by their long, flattened snouts and the bony armor that lines their backs, called scutes. They also have a set of four whisker-like appendages on the bottom of their snouts called barbels.They use them to find food along the bottoms of lakes and rivers.

Big Randy, the sturgeon in Katie Bryant’s seventh grade class, pictured in its tank at LakeVille Middle School. The class is one of several Michigan science classrooms that incorporate the sturgeon into its curriculum, using it to teach kids about conservation and natural resources. Image: Katie Bryant

Near the beginning of commercial Great Lakes fisheries, lake sturgeon were plentiful, but not desirable. They were scrapped or burned as fuel. Later on, more commercially viable uses for the fish were found – they were harvested for their meat and eggs and their numbers dropped due to overfishing.

Sturgeon for Tomorrow was founded as a reaction to the threatened sturgeon population. It began with fishermen that wanted to continue fishing and some businesses that were hurt by the absence of sturgeon fishing, Woiderski said..

In recent times, the lake sturgeon has occupied a Great Lakes cultural niche.  In the northern end of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula in a town called Indian River, a 32-foot-long steel sturgeon statue sits on a stone outcropping in a patch of grass on the side of the road.

Every year at Black Lake near Cheboygan, Michigan, hundreds of anglers spread across the  ice in hopes of spearing one of six sturgeon allotted for fishing by the DNR. Near the shore in a large canvas tent, Sturgeon for Tomorrow sells sturgeon-themed sweaters, t-shirts, pins and stuffed sturgeons. Businesses even borrow the name of the ancient fish.

Sturgeon for Tomorrow’s mission has also changed. Now, it’s more about conserving sturgeon and sturgeon fisheries for future generations. Sturgeon for Tomorrow hopes to expand the program into southwest Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.

The Great Lakes sturgeon population could face more problems. The United States Geological Survey reports that climate change is already decreasing ice cover and changing water temperatures. That  could affect sturgeon populations’ ability to survive and spawn. The research notes warmer temperatures could also decrease the availability of the food for sturgeon. It’ll take continued conservation efforts to maintain the sturgeon population.

“The work we’re doing today, I probably won’t live long enough to see the results of,” Woiderski said. “It’s not about me. Originally, yep, I’m gonna tell you it was. But I’m a long way from that now.”

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