ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Conservationists spent Friday on the Genesee River, stocking the waters with lake sturgeon which will eventually grow to four feet in length. The project is an important way to gauge the river's health.

On the Genesee River, it's become a right of autumn, one which often draws a crowd, as small lake sturgeon are loaded into a boat for stocking.

"We now are in our 12th year of a project, restoring lake sturgeon to the Genesee River," said Dr. Jeff Wyatt with the Seneca Park Zoo.

The fish were historically abundant in the Genesee. But as recently as the early 2000s, they couldn't be found here.

"If there were any adult sturgeon using this river I would have caught them," said Dawn Dittman.

Dittman is a research ecologist. She's been on board since the project's beginning.

"They're a sentinel species for water quality, and so having sturgeon in the river indicates the river is reaching a water quality that we'd like," said Dittman.  

The Genesee is gorgeous this time of year. But by the 1970s, conservationists say the river's health was on life support. Experts say introducing the sturgeon, 5,000 since the project began, helps gauge the river's quality. They believe it's been a success.

"Successful in that I believe they consider this their river now, so, they're here," said Dittman.

"They're doing as well as fish in healthy rivers all across the Great Lakes. We couldn't be happier about the progress and happier about how they're doing," said Wyatt.

As far as long-term success of the Genesee River sturgeon project, time will tell.

"We marked 110 of the large ones and 110 of the small ones," said Dittman.

Sturgeon don't reproduce until they're 20 years old, and then, only do so every five years which is part of the reason they're still an endangered species.

"If you have a lot of fishing going on, you're actually removing a lot of the animals before they ever reproduce," said Dittman.

Compared to decades past, and proven in improved water quality, not to mention natural beauty, conservationists say they're on the right track.

"It's been a long road for the Genesee that we're only part of the way through," said Dittman.