MANISTEE — Nearly 400 nme’, or lake sturgeon, placed into the Manistee River by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and participants, became the largest sturgeon release since the tribe’s initial push to protect the ancient, endangered fish.
The annual Nme’ Release happened Sept. 11 at Manistee River’s Rainbow Bend, near the LRBOI Natural Resource Division’s streamside rearing facility. This is the 17th year that the tribe successfully reared and returned the species back into the river — in the past, more than 300 were released.
The nme’ release is a celebration that includes drumming, singing, and community gathering in a sacred ceremony that recognizes the importance of the indicator species both culturally and ecologically.
Community members from the tribe, and surrounding area carry the little sturgeon (fingerlings) in five-gallon buckets to be released into the river. Afterward, the crowd stands silently for a few moments before encouraging the small fish on their new journey.
William “Frank” Beaver, director of LRBOI’s Natural Resources Division, said the annual release of the nme’ has been incredibly successful because of the support from the council, tribal citizens and their surrounding neighbors.
“The tribe is really committed and dedicated to the success of the lake sturgeon,” Beaver, adding that it’s an “all hands on deck” collaboration within a multi-agency effort.
The tribe recognizes the importance of nme’ and the significance the species has for the overall health of the watershed and Anishinaabek, Beaver explained. Since 2004, the LRBOI intensively evaluated, sampled, and managed the Manistee River’s lake sturgeon population.
“Past research had shown that the lake sturgeon populations were very small but there wasn’t enough data to really know what the numbers were in the river,” Archie Martell, Fisheries Division Manager for LRBOI Natural Resources Division.
So the tribe began monitoring the population by doing annual surveys, DNA collections, and compiling the data to gain a better understanding of the fish.
In 2007 the tribe implemented their Nme’ Stewardship Plan, a multifaceted approach guided by culturally derived principles along with biological criteria.
The collaboration between biologists, and tribal citizens including elders, women, youth, and pipe carriers, states that “the annual nme’ return and it’s celebration by our Peoples assure the renewal and continuation of human and all other life.”
The plan is intended to guide tribe’s Natural Resources Division for the next seven generations with four goals that emphasize restoration and reclamation of the environment “on which is dependent for the future generations of nme’ and the Anishinaabek.”
It also includes the importance of the connection between cultural and biological foundations.
“The first implementation of the rehabilitation plan was to fully understand and assess the status of the sturgeon population,” Martell said.
Each spring, workers carefully collect young lake sturgeon in the Manistee River, allowing the natural selection of spawning mates, Martell added, because the tribe only will collect naturally drifting larvae (fry) or deposited, fertilized eggs.
They are then placed into tanks at the tribe’s rearing facility along the river. There they are kept safe from natural predators, while raised in their home waters that are pumped into the holding tanks from the river.
The water is pumped into the facility through hundreds of meters of underground piping and enters a set of mechanical sediment filters that remove a portion of the silt and sand load, but keep the water “true to itself.”
Martell stated that the tribe does this so the fish are imprinted with unique markers that will call the sturgeon back to the river when they’re ready to spawn and preserve the unique genetics for the population.
It’s a process that is vital to the cultural and biological integrity of the stewardship plan.
While at the facility they are fed and closely monitored under water quality alarms, safety systems that include UV lighting to kill off any harmful bacteria.
Once they reach a healthy size — Martell said that it’s about 6-9 inches — they are tagged and released in the sacred ceremony to welcome them back home.
The goal for tagging the fish is so they can be identified by any other organization doing similar work, like the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. Martell said this is to see if the program is meeting its goals and objectives.
The tribe is looking to implement an adult assessment to evaluate the return rate of rearing facility sturgeon. Currently they are working on putting PIT-tag antennas, or passive integrated transponders, within the river system to track migration and health of the adult sturgeon. This will also allow them to better collect data to gain a bigger understanding of the overall health of the sturgeon, Martell explained.
With what starts off with a gentle scooping up little nme’ in the Manistee River doesn’t end when another hand gently places them back home.
Beaver said that the goal of the program is to bring the sturgeon and people back to the river.
“We’re doing this with the next seven generations in mind.”