Sturgeon are a prehistoric fish that can live up to 100 years old, but overfishing and habitat destruction has decimated their population across the state.
Baby sturgeon were released last weekend as part of a joint effort between the state, tribes and conservation groups to restore populations of this ancient fish.
A baby sturgeon release ceremony was held August 24 by the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians at the village Wolverine.
Roughly 80 people stood in a circle surrounding Tribal Council Member Fred Harrington while he gave a teaching about the importance of sturgeon in Odawa culture.
“Our sturgeon is one of our thought-provoking clans, one of our clans of wisdom. We learn from the sturgeon,” said Harrington. “So when we think about the past, we look to the one who has been here the longest, and the sturgeon has been here for a long time.”
The sturgeon were born in the nearby Black River, where they were collected and raised in the tribe’s fish hatchery for a few months, until today, when they were ready to be released into the Sturgeon River.
The Sturgeon River flows into Burt Lake where, like many other places in the state, sturgeon have suffered a massive decline since the 1800's. Habitat destruction and overfishing have left populations at a fraction of what they were.
“There used to be probably thousands of adult fish in Burt Lake. Now we have probably less than 200,” said Kris Dey, hatchery manager for the tribe.
He said the fish released should mature and come back to the river in about 20 years.
“So we're looking to manage the population in Burt Lake, and we're hoping they'll return here to spawn and then flush out back into Burt Lake," he said.
The tribe has released about 3,000 baby sturgeon since 2013. This year, their goal is 700. Because of some cooler weather, most of the fish aren’t quite ready. But, a few dozen of the tiny creatures were brought to the river early for the celebration.
Dey gave a lesson in how biologists track the fish they release.
“If you see a white spot on your fish, superglue,” he said. “They have that microchip in them. We actually have to insert the tag, and to keep the tags from falling out and to have it heal faster, we actually superglue it shut.”
He and other staff started handing kids buckets and directing them toward the river. Kevin Donner, a fisheries biologist for the tribe, talked his 4-year-old son, Kiiwedin, through putting his fish in the water. The sturgeon was sent off with a very adorable “bye, fishy.”