By NATHAN PAYNE
---- — MANISTEE — A decade of work appears to be paying off in efforts to restore lake sturgeon populations in northern Michigan.
The proof: 370 small sturgeon fry that swam away from the hands of hundreds of volunteers Sept. 14 along the banks of the Manistee River, said Marty Holtgren, senior inland fisheries biologist for the Little River Band of the Ottawa Indians.
Holtgren has worked for the band's sturgeon re-population program for more than 10 years. He said the real success from his efforts likely won't come for a few more decades — when the small sturgeon mature enough to return to the river to spawn.
The recent release from the band's stream-side sturgeon rearing facility is a record, surpassing its next largest release by 400 percent.
"It's our largest in 10 years," Holtgren said. "My favorite part is watching people put that fish in the river."
The facility hosts an annual event in which community members are invited to help fisheries workers release the small fish. Each person or family gets to hand-deliver a sturgeon fry to the river and watch it swim away.
Workers collect sturgeon eggs and larvae from the river bottom each spring, then put them in the stream-side facility where they are fed and kept safe until the band's annual release event each September.
By that time the fish usually are between seven and 10 inches long and should be able to survive once they reach Lake Michigan.
The the program's mobile, stream-side rearing facility was the first of its kind in the Great Lakes and has been used as a model for five other sturgeon-rearing facilities in Michigan, Holtgren said.
And Holtgren's facility isn't the only one in northern Michigan that had a good year.
Brenda Archambo, president of the Black River Chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow, said her organization's permanent stream-side rearing facility turned out 15,600 sturgeon fry this summer.
"We had a capacity issue," Archambo said. "For the sake of the remaining fish at the facility, we had to release some early."
About 2,000 of the fish were given to a new stream-side rearing facility operated by the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, 6,000 were held by the Black River facility for its fall release and the rest were turned loose early, Archambo said.
The numbers produced by the two facilities are pretty divergent because of different techniques they use, Holtgren said.
His facility collects only eggs and larvae that have been laid on the river bed by an existing population of spawning lake sturgeon. The facility only rears the sturgeon it collects, an effort to preserve the genetic purity of the sturgeon in the Manistee River.
Archambo's facility, like many others in the Great Lakes, catches spawning sturgeon and extracts eggs and sperm from them. The group then fertilizes those eggs in its stream-side facility.
Technique aside, both organizations work to give young sturgeon a head start in life, Holtgren said.
"They're a living fossil; they're not the easiest to raise," Archambo agreed. "They are the elder statesmen of Michigan's fish species. We may not live to see the fruits of our efforts now."
Sturgeon released by Holtgren's program have been netted as far away as Holland. The fish caught there had grown to three feet long. It is progress he hopes will continue and eventually will bring more than the existing average of about 40 spawning sturgeon into the Manistee River each year.
"I think it's totally reasonable that rather than a couple dozen, we could see a few hundred," he said.