GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Lake sturgeon have naturally reproduced in the Grand River, researchers say.

Researchers from the Grand Rapids Public Museum, along with John Ball Zoo, Encompass Socio-Ecological Consulting, Grand Valley Metro Council, Grand Valley State University and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, announced on Tuesday they have documented the natural reproduction of the fish in the Grand River for the first time.

The team found a juvenile sturgeon. It’s a new hope for a threatened species in Michigan.

“It’s really nice not to have a zero on my data sheet,” GRPM VP of science and education Stephanie Ogren, Ph.D., told News 8. “We’re really excited about it.”

It’s the culmination of four years of work, with scientists looking for the young fish on the Grand River.

“The Grand River is a large river system,” Ogren said. “It’s a pretty hard river system to work in. … The past four years have been tracking those locations where we could see them, where they would likely be.”

The team of scientists discovered the 4-month-old, 6-inch sturgeon on Sept. 8. They later released it back into water. They’re calling it a breakthrough because it’s a sign of reproduction, an encouraging sign for the future of a dwindling population.

“They’re a threatened species,” Ogren said. “There’s not very many left. So if you caught one and you removed it from the system it could be pretty determinantal.”

For generations, lake sturgeon were abundant throughout the Great Lakes, until overfishing in the 1800s and early 1900s nearly eliminated the population. That wasn’t the only problem.

“There’s habitat destruction, there’s reduction of habitat, there’s also historically overfishing of sturgeon, and then just general water quality,” Ogren said. “Water quality in the region is consistently getting better which is also helping sturgeon populations.”

Lake sturgeon have been a threatened species in Michigan since 1994. You’re only allowed to catch them with a special permit and only in certain lakes in Northern Michigan.

Scientists say they play an important role in the ecosystem.

“It kind of is sort of a ‘sensor’ for the rest of the species,” Ogren said. “If sturgeon are doing well, you can guess most species are doing okay. If sturgeon are having a hard time, you may have some issues with the river system.”

There’s still plenty of work to be done to increase the lake sturgeon population, Ogren said.

“We want to continue to improve water quality,” Ogren said. “Repair and protect habitat is important. And anything we can do to increase the quality of our river systems will eventually affect and hopefully improve the populations as well.”

Experts know “very little about the Grand River population” of sturgeon, Marty Holtgren, Ph.D., of Encompass Socio-Ecological Consulting explained in the release.

For researchers, the discovery is a leap forward to protecting the fish for generations to come.

“For me, it’s a really big deal,” Ogren said. “And for the sturgeon community and just growing our knowledge about that fish species and the population in West Michigan is a really big data point.”