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.