Gun Lake tribe, state lead sturgeon-release ceremony
Storm clouds parted just in time for a sturgeon release party on Wednesday, Aug. 29, at the New Richmond Bridge County Park. A few hundred people descended upon the Kalamazoo River for the release of 35 6- to 9-inch sturgeon reared in the streamside hatchery at the park.
A young red-tailed hawk even joined the party, swooping down next to the bridge and capturing a snake before landing on a car for photos by spectators. Appetite satisfied, the fish were safe.
The Gun Lake Tribe of Pottawatomi Indians; Michigan Department of Natural Resources; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; Kalamazoo River Chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow, and Grand Valley State University led the release ceremony.
Sturgeon, or Nmé in Pottawatomi, is culturally important to the tribe as the fish represents an animal clan in traditional beliefs. Sturgeon clan people have spiritual knowledge offered as guidance to others and they live to an old age, just like lake sturgeon. The rehabilitation of lake sturgeon is also a reflection of the tribe’s present-day progression as a community and a tribal government.
A welcome was provided by Tribal Council vice chairman Ed Pigeon who said the release was the fourth since 2011. Tribal drum group, Sons of the Three Fires performed. The event included hatchery tours and light dinner.
During a hatchery tour, Gun Lake Tribe environmental biologist Jason Lorenz who reared the sturgeon since spring, said at six to nine inches the sturgeon have a better chance for survival because they are unlikely to be eaten by predators. With the natural survival rate of one in 1,000, the hatchery is increasing the odds.
Starting each spring, lake sturgeon travel past New Richmond Park to spawn upstream at the Allegan Dam. There, the sticky eggs and larvae are scooped up and brought to the hatchery trailer to be reared in protection from predators, starvation and disease.
Water from the river is circulated through rearing tanks to allow the young lake sturgeon to imprint to the river. As adults, they will return there to spawn. The technique enhances survival and helps maintain the population’s unique genetic characteristics.
Female sexual maturity isn’t reached for 20 to 26 years and 12 to 16 years for males. Female sturgeon spawn once every four to six years, while males spawn every one to two years. When the females spawn they lay 4,000 to 7,000 eggs per pound of fish. Their typical life span is 60-80 years and 55 years for males. They can grow to more than 7-feet-long and weigh over 240 pounds. Some have been known to live over 100 years.
“We started with 300 eggs this spring, 100 hatched but then we ended up with 60,” he said. “When we start to change their food some of them die off,” Lorenz said.
Historically, spawning groups were between 50 to 200 but today less than 25 individual sturgeon ascend the river annually due to habitat loss.
Punkin Shananaquet, the tribe’s language and cultural coordinator, explained to the crowd that Nmé in Pottawatomi means king of the fish.
“Gathering as relatives to this earth, land and water, we release the little spirit fish, welcome them home and tell them to be determined on life because the young will take 100 years to reach maturity—like us—the ones who wear a blanket of snow on their heads, they will be a grandmother you go to seeking advice,” Shananaquet said. “This is a time to cherish. All ages, all colors and all walks of life are here today for one commonality—to preserve the sturgeon—the spirit of the Kalamazoo,” she said. “Especially the children who some day will be saving it.”
The first seven sturgeon were released by the Tribe. The rest were released by curious children in the crowd.
Virginia Ransbottom can be contacted at email@example.com or at (269) 673-5534.