EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
At left, a fish elevator acts as a ladder to bring lake sturgeon from the lower Menominee River into holding tanks at the Menominee Dam, owned by Eagle Creek Renewable Energy. The sturgeon are measured, tagged and released — either above the Park Mill Dam further upstream, or back downstream. At right, sturgeon rest in a holding tank.
EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
At left, a fish elevator acts as a ladder to bring lake sturgeon from the lower Menominee River into holding tanks at the Menominee Dam, owned by Eagle Creek Renewable Energy. The sturgeon are measured, tagged and released — either above the Park Mill Dam further upstream, or back downstream. At right, sturgeon rest in a holding tank.

MENOMINEE — They were here before man.

The beasts of fresh water fisheries, lake sturgeon, go back to the time of the dinosaurs — 200 million years ago. They called the lakes, rivers, creeks and streams their home, and nothing stood in their way.

When First Man came, they formed an alliance with the creatures based on need. The large fish needed the waters, man needed the fish. The Native Americans took what they needed, but no more. The large sturgeon were left to move freely in the water to feed, live and procreate.

That changed when North America became home to immigrants from Europe. The waters were used for fishing, for transportation and to move the logs being cut from the forests. Suddenly, man was blocking the rivers with dams to control logging in the mid-1800s; by the 1920s, dams were being built to harness the power created by the massive force of the moving water.

Many lake sturgeon were no longer able to access the waters above the dams in the Menominee River. While some existed above the dams, the remainder continued to spawn in the swift, downriver areas. But their numbers decreased. What was once a population estimated at 2.4 million is now closer to 3,000.

The Menominee River is one of the main habitats of the lake sturgeon in North America, and so became part of an effort 20 years ago to find a way to get the sturgeon from the Lower Menominee to above the second dam, or Park Mill Dam, at Kimberly Clark.

Paul Radzikinas, project manager at Eagle Creek Renewable Energy, owner and operator of the Menominee Dam (just west of the Hattie Street Bridge) and Park Mill Dam, has been a part of the process to bring a fish passage station to those dams. Mike Kitt, a former employee of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources who is now employed by Eagle Creek, said the sturgeon passage facility was first conceptualized in 1985, when the dam was owned by North American Hydro.

Eagle Creek purchased the dams in 2012, and reached an agreement with the River Alliance of Wisconsin to form an implementation team. Other partners in creating a passageway for one of the area’s oldest creatures were the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Significant funding was also provided by Eagle Creek and the Fund for Lake Michigan. The project was built because of the cooperation and assistance of many organizations, including Wisconsin DNR, Michigan DNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and River Alliance of Wisconsin.

“The River Alliance spearheaded writing and getting the grants,” Radzikinas said. There were five initial phases planned of the project, and in 2016, the group completed Phase III, which involved installing a “fish elevator” to bring the sturgeon from the rushing waters of the Menominee River up to a gathering area where they are sorted, measured, medically checked over and implanted with tracking devices.

Those female sturgeons found to be ready to release eggs, along with a number of male sturgeons, are physically moved from the holding tanks at the Menominee Dam to upriver of the Park Mill Dam.

Radzikinas said the original plan for Phase IV was to construct a number of graduated pools of water near Riverside Golf Course, which would be used by the sturgeon to climb upward into the water above Park Mill Dam. That plan changed because of cost and after the golf course was sold to new owners.

Now, with a custom-built trailer constructed by Gerdes Fabrication of Black River Falls, Wis., the team can transport the “chosen ones” from the facility at the Menominee Dam to the upstream waters of the Menominee.

While sturgeon can be found in stretches of the Menominee River all the way north to Sturgeon Falls near Norway, this will make a 21-mile segment of the river between the Grand Rapids Dam and Park Mill available to the sturgeon.

“The real objective is, the fry (baby fish) didn’t survive very well in the lower Menominee,” said Radzikinas. Because the current is stronger near the mouth and and it doesn’t offer as many prime spawning grounds as the upper river, with rocky, gravelly bottoms, the hope is that by introducing more sturgeon to the upper part of the river, more small fry will make it to adulthood.

Radzikinas said there are five dams in the 82 miles between Sturgeon Falls and the mouth of the Menominee River. Fish as old and large as sturgeon (some of them can live 50 to 60 years and weigh up to 300 pounds) can’t jump.

They needed a little help.

Darren Kramer, fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said there are resident populations of lake sturgeon in other areas of the Menominee River, but the plan is to give the fish selected each year a section of the river with fast flow and large rocks to call home for spawning.

“We’re seeing bigger fish, but we’re missing the mid-size fish,” Kramer said.

The fish passage station was designed to help move sturgeon upstream, but it doesn’t prevent those sturgeon and other species upstream from finding their way back to Green Bay and beyond.

Both the Park Mill and the Menominee Dam have areas where fish are directed to “go with the flow” and swim toward the bay. While both passageways or flumes are built to move the fish toward the chute, the flume at the Menominee Dam is equipped with sensor cameras that snap pictures of any large objects passing through. Those photos allow staff to do a headcount of the sturgeon heading back through.

Flumes are specially shaped, engineered structures that are used to measure the flow of water in open channels. Flumes are static in nature — having no moving parts — and develop a relationship between the water level in the flume and the flow rate by restricting the flow of water in a variety of ways.

Cameras also focus on the sturgeon and other fish hovering near the passageway that contains the elevator. There, operators can close the gate on one side to keep the fish in that are trying to swim upstream, and then close the other gate to keep them in a basket.

It is a very heavy basket, requiring a huge lift to bring high enough to empty the fish into a holding tank. There are often other fish species, as many as 28 different kinds seen, in the elevator. They are counted, categorized and released down a chute that is closer to the Menominee bank.

Only 90 lake sturgeon are moved upstream each year during a 12-week period in spring and fall.

Radzikinas said there are more sturgeon than the 90 available, but they want to keep consistent numbers each year to track what they hope will eventually be a population spike.

Females have to be about 20 before they release eggs, and then they only spawn every four to nine years. To ensure the females transported to the upper river are ready to spawn, they used ultrasound technology. Radzikinas said the scan looks for “tapioca pudding” size eggs; if they are smoother, the female is tagged and released downstream.

Males usually mature between 8 and 12 years old, but can take up to 22 years. What the team is looking for is a female about 50 inches long. “If the males are 45-46 inches, we will pass them,” said Radzikinas.

Every fish gets a PIT tag, or is checked to see if they already have one. The tag is similar to those put in domestic pets and has an identifier unique to each fish.

PIT tags (passive integrate transponders) can be used to answer questions regarding growth rates, survivorship, food webs and movement patterns. A major advantage over mark-recapture methods is that marked animals do not need to be recaptured; they just need to pass by an automated reading system antenna, according to www.nature.com.

PIT has been used on fish species in the Great Lakes and the Peshtigo River system, so some fish are already tagged when they come through Menominee Dam.

There are hydroaccoustic tags are implanted in about 20 fish a year, which last about three years. Receivers “up and down the river” according to Kramer, track the sturgeons’ movement.

As the fish passage station matures, so do the studies, as data is gathered as to not only gauge the best weeks to gather fish, but the best times of day.

While Eagle Creek commits to spend 12 weeks a year to gather, measure and move fish, the actual start and finish is fluid.

“It was eight weeks in the spring, originally, and four weeks in the fall,” said Radzikinas.

Kramer said the spring work is always dependent “on when the ice goes out and how much run off there is. Now, we do three weeks in the spring and have nine weeks to operate in the fall.”

This year, the work started a week earlier than usual, and the team has already seen record numbers of sturgeon.

The entire project has cost around $12 million, with $6 million coming from Eagle Creek; $4.4 million from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Fund; $1.5 million from the Environmental Protection Agency and $84,000 from the Fund for Lake Michigan.

Radzikinas said the operational cost of bringing all the sturgeon in for testing, tagging, moving or releasing, is between $50,000 and $60,000 annually and is all borne by Eagle Creek, which subcontracts with the DNR.

North American Hydro established a fund to construct and operate the fish passage station in 2004, when it was first conceptualized. “There’s still money in that fund,” he said. Money from the fund is used for modifications and construction, while money for staffing comes directly from the company.

“We have recognized and appreciate funding through public funds,” Radzikinas said of all the state and federal dollars that have been used to build the facility. The company opens up the fish passage station for public viewing once a year — this year, it will be held in two sessions on Sept. 12.

Because of the turbines that supply electricity, and the involvement of fast, moving water, the tours are limited to people age 18 and older, unless accompanied by an adult.

But it gives everyone who attends the chance to see what technology is doing to increase the population of this ancient fish species.

“It is the only fish elevator in North America for sturgeon,” Radzikinas added.