Sturgeon Pen Pals: Connecting Wisconsin Students with their Lake sturgeon

Gallery of sturgeon pen pal postcards at the Midwest Fisheries Center. Credit: Gretchen Newberry, USFWS.

BY GRETCHEN NEWBERRY, MIDWEST FISHERIES CENTER

It started with a question: How many students along the Mississippi River would be able to recognize a lake sturgeon? In the Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin, kids are often exposed to the outdoors. It’s a rolling landscape of streams, wetlands, bluffs, prairies and caves, and many students fish with their parents and grandparents, sometimes from their own backyard. But, what about the fish that don’t end up on their hook? How much do they know about fish that are less common?

The Midwest Fisheries Center has a long history with lake sturgeon conservation. Since the 1990s, the center’s biologists have worked with tribes on restoring and monitoring lake sturgeon populations. Helping young people become more knowledgeable about lake sturgeon conservation increases public awareness promotes the value of this work.

Taking the lake sturgeon into the classroom and telling their story to the students could only help. At West Salem Elementary School’s Environmental Day this last spring, I asked the students if they thought lake sturgeon lived in Wisconsin. Among six classrooms of 20 children, only half of the students were certain lake sturgeon could be found in the state, and only a couple students could identify the sturgeon in our tank.

The students were led through a series of questions to introduce them to this charismatic fish: How many of you have ever wanted to see an animal that has lived alongside a dinosaur? How big do you think a lake sturgeon can grow? How long can they live? Rather than presenting the facts, asking questions engages students and gives them ownership of their own educational process. We talked about the 19th Century caviar craze that led to near extirpation for the lake sturgeon in Wisconsin, and how we, the Wisconsin people, brought their fish back from the brink. We talked about the cultural importance of lake sturgeon for First Nations people and how spawning sturgeon was a gift at the end of a hard Wisconsin winter long before there were grocery stores to help us all survive. They witnessed the Menominee Tribe’s fish dance via a video provided by the Wisconsin First Nations. We talked about the bumpy scutes that help young vulnerable sturgeon survive, their cartilaginous skeletons, and the importance of fish passage. All of these details helped the students flesh out the story of lake sturgeon and their own place in its history.

Al Brinkman, Midwest Fisheries Center and Genoa National Fish Hatchery (NFH) volunteer, and member of the Friends of the Upper Mississippi, talked to the students about his work coded wire tagging thousands of sturgeon at Genoa NFH last summer. It was important the students understood that sturgeon persist in this state and others due to civic engagement from the Wisconsin people.

The session ended by asking the students to help me out. I wanted to wish the sturgeon a good journey as they migrate our waterways and as they travel to other states to be released by our hatcheries. I asked the students to write postcards to the sturgeon as they contemplated what these young sturgeon need to survive.


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