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image of Joe Bush preparing to release a sturgeon after a blessing ceremony.

In Celebration of Sturgeon

A passageway in a concrete barrier opens for a sacred fish.

By Jason Abraham

Joe Bush, spiritual elder of White Earth Indian Reservation, draws deeply from a ceremonial pipe that has blessed untold weddings, funerals, and newborn babies. On this sunny June morning, he stands on the bank of the Wild Rice River north of Twin Valley. The blessing is for sturgeon.

Sweet-smelling blue tobacco smoke wafts through a crowd of tribal members from the White Earth Band and Rainy River First Nations of Ontario joined by federal, state, and tribal natural resource officials as well as local politicians. He prays that this event, celebrating the reopening of a historic sturgeon migration route from White Earth Lake to the Red River, marks the return of a natural cycle for these fish, sacred to the members of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.

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Photo Gallery of In Celebration of Sturgeon

He offers the pipe to each person in a line of honored guests. Each played a significant role in creating a fish passage on this location where the Heiberg Dam once stood. For the past 80 years, that concrete barrier kept sturgeon and numerous other species of fish from the upper reaches of the Wild Rice River and White Earth Lake on White Earth Indian Reservation. Bush finishes his blessing as joyous cries and the sound of pounding drums rise from the performance of a traditional victory song by Eagle Spirit drum group.

The river tumbles swift and muddy over rocky rapids built to aid fish as they swim upstream through a notch cut in the dam. Randy Zortman, White Earth fisheries manager, stands quietly at the edge of the crowd. He sees today's ceremony as yet another step forward in a sturgeon recovery plan that the tribe wrote in the early days of his 23-year career.

"We didn't even know where we would find genetically comparable fish to restock the population," Zortman says. Winona LaDuke, head of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, solved that problem in 1999 when she made a connection with members of Rainy River First Nations in Ontario. Since 1993 the Rainy River First Nations had been raising sturgeon genetically comparable to those that once lived in the Red River watershed at their hatchery near Fort Frances, Ontario. "If not for their efforts and cooperation," Zortman says, "none of the agencies involved would be able to restore this valuable resource."

For the past five years, thousands of pounds of sturgeon fingerlings and fry, the progeny of those raised by Rainy River First Nations, have been propagated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the national fish hatchery in Genoa, Wis. In addition to facilitating this propagation, White Earth Band members have reintroduced sturgeon to White Earth Lake and nearby Round Lake on the reservation.

To Zortman and many members of the White Earth Band, the sturgeon's return to tribal waters affirms their belief that all things in life return in a circle, like the sun and the moon. It's a homecoming for a fish they consider a cultural and spiritual relative.

Sacred Fish

Sturgeon, one of the oldest species of fish in existence, grow larger and live longer than any other North American freshwater fish. With few natural predators besides humans, these fish can live 150 years and reach 400 pounds. They spend their lives at the bottom of lakes and rivers, stirring sediment with their long, rubbery snouts and taking in crayfish, nymphs, and other small aquatic animals with their suckerlike mouths.

Prior to European settlement in Minnesota, Ojibwe Indians found abundant lake sturgeon and built a life around the fish. They harvested sturgeon by spearing or by dragging nets between two canoes in a yearly spring celebration that coincided with spawning. According to accounts of European explorers, thousands of Ojibwe gathered for the event, which included dancing, spiritual healing, and ceremonies celebrating the harvest.

In addition to practical uses for the sturgeon's meat, skin, and oil, the fish took on spiritual meaning for the Ojibwe people. One legend tells of a family that transformed into sturgeon and became what White Earth Band members know today as the sturgeon clan -- part of the fish clan, which is one of seven animal clans recognized by the tribe. Clan membership passes from fathers to their children and determines their role in the band.

"It's something the Ojibwe use to define each person," says Mike Swan, director of the White Earth Band's Department of Natural Resources. "Members of the sturgeon clan are mediators and scholars; they cannot touch or eat sturgeon. It would be like disrespecting a member of their family."

Sturgeon Crash

The life the Ojibwe people built around sturgeon didn't last. The abundance of sturgeon and a lack of fishing regulation led to heavy exploitation when European settlers arrived in the area in the 1800s. On Lake Winnipeg, historically critical sturgeon habitat in the Red River basin, commercial fishermen harvested great numbers of sturgeon for their swim bladders, which were used to produce isinglass, a clarifying agent in alcohol. And they harvested sturgeon eggs for caviar. After removing the swim bladders or eggs, the fishermen often left sturgeon carcasses to rot on shorelines, burned them on land, or used them as fuel for boilers in steamships. On Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River, where sturgeon were fished heavily, the annual commercial harvest reached nearly 2 million pounds between 1883 and 1893.

Like most long-lived species, sturgeon mature slowly and reproduce infrequently; therefore, their population couldn't reproduce fast enough to sustain the harvest, and it crashed before 1900. In the 1920s as agriculture became more important in the Red River valley, local watershed authorities and private individuals built dams to provide electricity and to supply water for drinking and agriculture on the Red and its tributaries. These dams blocked sturgeon migration routes to spawning areas. Moreover, farming practices such as plowing to the river's edge increased soil erosion, sending loads of sediment into the water and clogging sturgeon-spawning areas with silt. Poor land-use practices in some areas continue to plague the river today.

Having lived on the White Earth Indian Reservation his entire life, Zortman saw the connection between the tribal elders and the sturgeon deteriorate as the fish became scarce. "The ceremonies that revolved around the harvest of sturgeon became defunct with the disappearance of the fish," he says. "The elders and many other members of the tribe were very interested in continuing those ceremonies today and regaining their connection to sturgeon."

Long-Distance Connections

Giving sturgeon room to roam is one of the keys to restoring their population, says Dave Friedl, DNR area fisheries supervisor at Detroit Lakes. Sturgeon might travel hundreds of miles through rivers and lakes to reach suitable spawning habitat. A number of tagged sturgeon stocked by the DNR in the Otter Tail River have been recaptured on Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, 500 miles away.

But removing or modifying dams to reopen migration routes isn't easy, Friedl says. "The real challenge is convincing people that storing water in a river's main channel, behind a dam or impoundment, is a short-term solution," he says. "Those impoundments eventually fill in with sediment, and their capacity for storing water diminishes greatly over time. The long-term solution is storing excess water on the land by restoring and maintaining existing wetlands."

In the case of the Heiberg Dam, Mother Nature lent a hand in 2002 when two torrential rainstorms dumped 14 to 20 inches of rain across the watershed within one week. The flooded Wild Rice River breached the dam and cut a new channel just north of its previous route. A state highway bridge near the dam was damaged as well. "Immediately after the breach, we began to see channel catfish, walleye, and smallmouth bass upstream of the dam," Friedl says. "These fish hadn't been documented in that area in almost 10 years."

Sturgeon Status

The DNR and various partners, including the USFWS and local and tribal governments, have been working to reintroduce or restore lake sturgeon populations in four Minnesota watersheds. Because lake sturgeon grow slowly and often don't reach sexual maturity until age 25, measuring the success of these efforts will take decades.

Red River: Since 1994 five of the eight U.S. dams on the main stem of the Red River have been modified to allow fish passage. Another 19 dams have been modified or removed on tributaries. Since 2002 the DNR and the White Earth Band have been stocking about 20,000 fingerlings annually into lakes and tributaries. The DNR has also stocked an average of over 150,000 fry each year.

Lake of the Woods/Rainy River: Following passage of the Clean Water Act, the spawning success of the river's sturgeon rebounded in the 1970s. In a 2004 population survey, DNR Fisheries found consistent recruitment of year-classes during the past 30 years. The population will be recovering for decades to come.

St. Louis River estuary/western Lake Superior: The establishment of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District in 1978 restored water quality in the St. Louis River estuary to a level acceptable for reintroduction of lake sturgeon. Between 1983 and 2000, the DNR stocked 16 sturgeon year-classes. In spring of 2007, DNR Fisheries observed mature sturgeon returning from Lake Superior to historical spawning grounds. A DNR project slated for completion in 2009 will improve roughly 800 feet of suitable spawning habitat below the Fond du Lac Dam.

St. Croix River: A study by Minnesota and Wisconsin DNRs indicates lake sturgeon populations in the upper and lower St. Croix River have remained stable since the 1990s. In 1995 the Sandstone Dam was removed on the Kettle River, restoring spawning habitat and reconnecting a historically important tributary on the upper river. A sturgeon tagged in the lower St. Croix was recaptured below the Red Wing Dam on the Mississippi. In addition to gathering data on sturgeon population and movement, the study aims to uncover critical habitat throughout the watershed.

New Passage

With an eye toward maintaining that fish passage, the DNR worked with tribal officials to protect the bridge, plug the breach, and modify the dam by cutting a 6-foot notch to allow fish passage. Rocks were added to provide fish with a temporary escape from the current as they swim upstream and pass the dam.

"What we've got today is a bit of a compromise," Friedl says. "The existing structure allows fish passage, and it's also fitted with icebreakers to protect the bridge from ice jams."

The Heiberg is one of more than 20 dams in the Red River basin that have been or will soon be modified or removed to provide fish passage. Dozens more remain, but Friedl is confident that sturgeon and other fish will one day be able to freely swim the Red River and all its tributaries.

It's too soon to predict when sport fishing for lake sturgeon, listed by the DNR as a species of special concern, might begin in the Red River valley. (The fish are protected by state regulations that limit harvest in Minnesota to one fish each year from the St. Croix or Canada-Minnesota border waters.) There are, however, hopeful signs that sturgeon fishing will one day draw anglers to this area. Anglers fishing White Earth Lake, Otter Tail Lake, and the Red River near Fargo have unintentionally caught and released sturgeon.

Release by Hand

On the Wild Rice River, a crowd has once again gathered around Joe Bush, this time a few hundred yards upstream of the dam site. He offers a pinch of tobacco to the river, a symbolic gift for future sturgeon harvests. Several tribal leaders follow suit and Bush prays again -- this time for the 160 sturgeon fingerlings about to be stocked from a nearby truck.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service technicians bring a small mesh net with about a dozen wriggling sturgeon fingerlings -- about 5 inches long and 1 1/2 years old -- to Bush. He plucks one from the net and releases it into the river. He invites the gathered crowd to release fish as well.

I watch for a while as teenagers, tribal elders, and others reverently cradle tiny sturgeon in their hands and release them into the water. The net comes my way, and I take one of the fingerlings. It looks angular with its sharklike tail and five rows of overlapping plates, called scutes, running the length of its tiny body. They're sharp now, but over time they will dull and resemble knobs.

I walk toward the water and wonder what the future holds for this fish that could well be swimming these waters long after my children and I are gone from this earth. Members of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe believe that people must protect natural resources not just for the next generation, but also for the next seven generations. If their philosophy prevails, this fish may swim though the Heiberg passage hundreds of times as it migrates to the Red River and possibly beyond to Lake Winnipeg or Hudson Bay. I gently place the tiny sturgeon in the muddy water and silently wish it the best of luck as it fins away.

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