The recent discovery of a massive sturgeon on Lake Champlain has reignited interest in the species the state of Vermont has called endangered.
This weekend, the Vermont Game Warden Association posted a picture on Facebook of a warden with a dead sturgeon homeowners in Isle La Motte reported washing ashore. The photo was shared on Facebook nearly 1,200 times by Monday afternoon.
That fish was estimated to be 6 feet, 9 inches in length, which likely makes it one of the largest sturgeons ever seen in modern times, according to Chet MacKenzie, a fisheries biologist with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife.
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The armored fish have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, but today are considered endangered in Vermont. In neighboring New York, which also claims part of the lake, the sturgeon is listed as "threatened."
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, sturgeon were once considered a nuisance fish by early commercial fishermen and were widely slaughtered. Habitat loss to development along their spawning grounds also contributed to the decline, according to the service.
Several sturgeon now live in captivity at Burlington's ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center.
"They are a bottom-feeder, so they sort of stick to themselves," said Jen Dean, an animal care specialist at ECHO, explaining one reason why the fish are rarely seen in the wild by people.
Dean said sturgeon sightings more commonly happen during spawning season, but said the size of the dead sturgeon from Isle La Motte makes it a truly unusual example.
"These guys can live to be 100-150 years old," Dean said. "It's great news that we have some out there that have lasted through what has been a dip in the population."
State wildlife biologists froze the dead fish from Isle La Motte, MacKenzie said, and will eventually test it for its sex and age, as part of ongoing species restoration work.
MacKenzie praised the residents of the Champlain Islands for calling officials about the discovery, because he said knowing where live fish are accidentally caught by fishermen or where dead fish are found can be critical information for researchers.
In the Burlington area, fascination with a legendary Lake Champlain creature known as Champ can be seen in statues on the waterfront and in the beloved mascot of the local minor league baseball team, the Vermont Lake Monsters.
The tangible lake monster, now shown in the widely-shared photo, is rekindling interest in that old lore.
"It was mysterious," said Hannah Langsdale, who believes she saw Champ while giving a lake tour aboard the Friend Ship, which offers sailing cruises of Lake Champlain.
Langsdale said she saw movement under the water that created a strange wave on what was otherwise still water.
Was it a sturgeon, like the ones on view at ECHO? Perhaps, Langsdale acknowledged. But she's not convinced, and visitors remain curious.
"Everybody asks about it," said Isaac Howe, who was leading a cruise on the Friend Ship Monday. "Especially the young kids. It gets them excited and interested in what may be out there."
MacKenzie said it appears the huge fish found on Isle La Motte died of natural causes.
For more information on sturgeon protection in Vermont, visit the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife website.