Little River Band works to restore fish species.

'Streamside rearing' method now used in other restoration efforts

By Konnie LeMay -- Today correspondent

MANISTEE, Mich. - Sturgeon is an ancient fish species that can live up to 150 years, reach up to 9 feet in length and weigh 300 pounds. But this gentle giant, which hasn't changed much since the age of dinosaurs, is also a species threatened by habitat changes and pollution. Its population numbers around the Great Lakes basin have dwindled.

For the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, the sturgeon is Nme' - King of Fish - and is a clan animal. For four years, the band has worked to save and revitalize the sturgeon in the Big Manistee River in Michigan. The groundbreaking methods of streamside rearing that the band has developed are now being used by other departments of natural resources.

A remnant population of about 300 - 500 sturgeon uses the Big Manistee River to spawn, said Marty Holtgren, an inland fisheries biologist for the band. Female sturgeon do not begin to reproduce until they are older than 20 years and then only every four to nine years. That means that as few as five females might swim up from Lake Michigan to spawn each year in the river. Sturgeon can live for up to 150 years, with an average life expectancy of 50 or 60 years.

Rather than stock fish reared from eggs at a remote hatchery, the band's method has been to catch the ''larvae,'' or newly hatched sturgeon, in the spring and then raise them for four months beside the Manistee and using its water, thus giving the ''fry'' the best chance of survival and helping them to avoid predators - such as crayfish and stocked trout - in those earliest of months.

''We basically stick a little hatchery in the trailer,'' Holtgren said. ''Whatever rehabilitation that we used, we didn't want to affect the genetics of the fish. That's why we use fry collected from the Big Manistee River.''

''[Ojibwe author/activist] Winona LaDuke has compared the demise of sturgeon to the buffalo, where age-old traditions have been destroyed, such as annual harvest and feasts of celebration,'' said Jimmie Mitchell, Little River Band member and director of the band's Natural Resources department. The Ottawa and the Ojibwe are both within the Anishinaabe nation.

''The sturgeon and the sucker runs were the first large species that our people were surviving on after the winter,'' Mitchell explained. ''Sturgeon were diverted into a shallow area and lifted right out of the water. ... Nutrients of the sturgeon are so good for you. Fish oil - it's very wholesome food for our people, especially after going through the lean times [of winter].''

The sturgeon harvest, however, is on hold as the band invests resources into boosting the fish population.

Mitchell performed a Pipe Ceremony along with Paul Carey, Little River Band of Ottawa elder, just before this year's September release of some 45 sturgeon fingerling. The release, which drew about 200 people from the band and the nearby communities, has become an annual celebration. Mitchell is encouraged by the indicators of the program's success.

''The ones [sturgeon] that are still second or third year ... are showing up. They seem to be doing very well. We're noticing that the fish that we rear are actually larger and seem to be in better health,'' he said.

The plan is to continue the streamside rearing for 15 to 20 years, which will get the first group reared beside the river to the point of beginning to spawn. To keep the program viable, the band has formed partnerships with other agencies, including the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been instrumental in helping to expedite the proper permits for the project. This year, the band received a Tribal Wildlife grant from the Fish and Wildlife Service, which will partially fund the project into 2010.

''We couldn't have done it alone,'' said Mitchell.

The streamside method of rearing developed by the band has been recognized by other agencies, too. The states of Wisconsin and Michigan have adopted similar programs, Holtgren said.

The ultimate success of the sturgeon in the Manistee River will be an indicator of the band's success in trying to revitalize the entire river system.

''If we can see a positive response from the sturgeon population,'' said Holtgren, ''we can see that the watershed is starting to heal.''