Midwest Region
Conserving the Nature of America

The Return of Namé "King of Fish" to the Red River Basin

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Thousands of years ago the Red River Basin in northwest Minnesota, like many tributaries of the Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes region, teemed with namé or "king of fish" - known by most as the lake sturgeon, a prehistoric freshwater fish that can grow to nine feet and weigh up to 300 pounds.

Early Native American tribes from across northwest Minnesota, the Dakotas, and portions of Canada revered the lake sturgeon as both a cultural symbol and essential staple in a sacred way of life.

Lake sturgeon were threatened with extinction across their native range in the mid 1900s due to commercial over fishing, pollution and the building of dams, but fishery biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), state natural resource agencies and tribal partners have spent the last decade working together to bring the "king of fish" back to its historic range in the Red River Basin.

"Early accounts from Native Americans speak of the fish being so plentiful that it appeared to them you could walk across the river on the backs of the fish," said Tom McCauley, archeologist for the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in northwest Minnesota.

The seasonal migration of lake sturgeon to their spawning grounds dictated the movements of the Native American people of the Red River Basin. The Rainy River, Rapid River, Manitou Rapids and Little and Big Fork Rivers served as gathering places for many tribes like the Rainy River First Nations, Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, and White Earth Band of Ojibwe. The lake sturgeon provided easily procured and highly nutritious sustenance with minimal time and effort.

"The spring harvest was a time of gathering and celebration for the 'first people' who spent a long winter apart with their respective tribes," McCauley said. "The gathering allowed the tribes from across the region to practice ceremonies and provided the chiefs of the different tribes an opportunity to sit down together and discuss tribal politics for the upcoming year."

The clan system of the early Native Americans fulfilled the needs of the larger tribal nation by securing justice, law and order, and, reinforced the teachings of a sacred way of life. Each clan, represented by a unique animal, served a unique purpose and worked cooperatively to meet the needs of the whole. The sturgeon clan, made up of educators, scholars and philosophers, were sought out by clan chiefs to assist in making important decisions that impacted the overall welfare of the community.

"Prior to spawning runs, tribal leaders would consult with the sturgeon clan on fishing locations to avoid over fishing the resource they so depended on," McCauley said.

"Sustainability is not a new concept for us," said Joe Hunter, member of Rainy River First Nations and operator of the Sustainable Sturgeon Culture fish hatchery near Emo, Ontario.

"When you take a fish from the river, you must offer something back," he said.

"This fishery was a source of life and livelihood for the Anishinabe [Ojibwe], who paid homage to the sturgeon through the practice of taking only what they needed to survive, and carry them through harsh winters; sustainability in its earliest form."

"The same principle applies to all of the natural resources we depend on," Hunter said.

The principle of sustainability continues to be honored and practiced by the Native American tribes of the Red River Basin.

The Sustainable Sturgeon Culture hatchery, situated on the Rainy River First Nations reservation, propagates lake sturgeon from the Rainy River, where harvest remains an important practice. The hatchery supplies fertilized lake sturgeon eggs to conservation agents like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for their lake sturgeon recovery and stocking efforts in waters across the Red River Basin where lake sturgeon once thrived.

Hunter's team collects broodstock, or breeding-age fish, from the Rainy River. They collect two males for every one of the 7-10 females used for spawning. The technique produces the most genetically viable offspring. Since 1995 the Rainy River First Nations has enacted a self-imposed moratorium on commercial sturgeon fishing, however, sustainable harvest is permitted for subsistence. To replenish the Rainy River from a season's harvest on the reservation, Hunter stocks lake sturgeon fry and fingerlings back into the river from which their brood stock came.

"The annual release of sturgeon fry is a ceremonial practice to give thanks to the river, thereby ensuring sustainability," Hunter said.

Tom Groshens, fishery biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources explains that while overfishing and pollution were key instigators in the decline of the lake sturgeon, the building of dams catalyzed the near extinction of the species by the mid to late 1900s.

"Lake sturgeon had a broad native range through the Red River Basin, Upper Mississippi River Basin, Great Lakes and extending into Canada. But the building of dams cut off their access to spawning habitats," he said. "That's when we saw the need to restore their populations. We were worried about their ability to survive."

In 1997, the states of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota took action alongside their federal and tribal conservation partners to rehabilitate the lake sturgeon and Red River Basin.

Service biologist Aaron Woldt says lake sturgeon recovery is approached from multiple recovery angles. Woldt says short-term recovery efforts aim to augment lake sturgeon populations through stocking and removal of dams to allow for fish passage, but maintaining lake sturgeon populations that are able to reproduce on their own and sustain their population is the long-term goal.

"Which is why monitoring and surveying fish that are stocked into the river are critical elements in evaluating the success of stocking and fish passage programs," Woldt said.

"Our main focus is on restoring populations that were depleted," said Scott Yess, Service biologist in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Yess and staff from the LaCrosse Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office focus their lake sturgeon recovery efforts in the Red River Basin in Minnesota as well as the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin.

The Red Lakes are two prairie lakes in northwest Minnesota with 285,000 acres of relatively shallow, turbid water.

"The last time lake sturgeon was seen in the Red Lakes was in the early 1940s, but there's a lot of archeological evidence that suggests they were used heavily by the early Red Lake Native Americans," said Pat Brown, fishery biologist with the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians. The Service and Minnesota DNR assist tribal partners in stocking efforts in the Red Lakes and across the Red River Basin.

Eggs from Joe Hunter's Sustainable Sturgeon Culture fish hatchery are transported to the Service's Genoa National Fish Hatchery (NFH), where they are hatched and raised to fingerling size, or between 5-7 inches, in length.

"Ideally, we'd be getting brood stock from the Red River, but, since there are few sexually-mature sturgeon left in that system, we wanted to get the closest genetic strain to that system. The Rainy River is as close as we can get because both the Red River and the Rainy River drain to Hudson Bay," Brown said.

They are then released back into suitable habitat, like the Blackduck River, which connects to the Red Lakes in northwest Minnesota, or in waters of the White Earth Reservation. All of the fingerlings from Genoa NFH are marked with coded-wire tags to monitor and track the movements and survivability of each year class.

Minnesota DNR and Service biologists also test lake sturgeon broodstock for viral diseases by clipping a small portion of the pectrol fin. Staff from the Service's LaCrosse Fish Health Center examine the samples to ensure broodstock are healthy, and thus ensure healthy eggs are transferred between hatcheries. Transfer of infected eggs could infect other hatchery fish. Fortunately no lake sturgeon broodstock have tested positive for viral diseases in the past ten years.

To further recovery efforts for the lake sturgeon, the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians instituted a tribal resolution banning the harvest of lake sturgeon in the Red Lakes.

"If you catch a lake sturgeon in the Red Lakes, you have to put it back," Brown said. The same regulation holds true on the White Earth Reservation and in the majority of Red River Basin waters.

Lake sturgeon that are accidentally caught in fishing nets are released. Those that don't survive, a rarity, are used to educate elementary, middle and high school students at the Red Lake reservation about lake sturgeon conservation and importance.

"Our hope is to use the Red Lakes as a nursery area, and provide suitable habitat for young lake sturgeon to thrive and then populate the rest of the Red River Basin," said Brown. "This could potentially mean up to 185 miles of upstream tributaries and 70 miles of the Red Lake River."

Coded wire tags that are used to mark hatchery fish allow fishery biologists to track and monitor the success of stocking efforts. "We use our own assessment gear and work with sport fishermen to see where the hatchery fish end up, which helps us identify what specific habitats they are using most," Woldt said.

To supplement stocking efforts throughout the Red River Basin, the Service, state natural resources agencies and tribes also collaborate on public and tribal lands to modify dams in the Red River Basin that prevent lake sturgeon and other fish from passing through.

"Lake sturgeon like to spawn on rocky substrate which is often found in the rivers. With all of the dams we have dotted across the landscape in the Midwest, lake sturgeon are up against fragmented habitat – they are essentially separated from their lake habitat and their river spawning habitat," Scott Yess said. "The Service's Fish Passage Program allows us to work with our partners to reconnect that lake and stream habitat."

Staff from the Minnesota DNR leads fish passage efforts in the Red River Basin. Together with Service biologists and tribal partners, more than 30 fish passage projects have been completed. Tribal and Service biologists led the effort on three fish passage projects on the White Earth Reservation tributaries to the Red River, and a fourth is underway in 2011. The projects were funded in part by the Service's Tribal Wildlife Grants program, which awards funding to Federally-recognized Tribal governments to develop and implement programs for the benefit of wildlife and their habitat, including species of Native American cultural or traditional importance.

"If you think of a low head dam you know that you have an instant drop and the fish can't navigate upstream because of that drop," said Yess. "Dam modification basically alters the dam face by putting rocks and boulders immediately downstream of the dam, in turn creating a gently sloping rock- riffle run, allowing fish to pass through."

Fish passage projects like this aim to restore the connectivity of the river, allowing lake sturgeon to access the habitat they need to spawn, and ultimately reproduce on their own.

Aaron Woldt emphasizes that the goal for lake sturgeon restoration in the Red River Basin is to facilitate the development of self-sustaining populations of lake sturgeon, and provide the tools necessary to restore connectivity to their habitat and boost their populations where they once thrived.

"One of the most important things about this partnership is to keep each other informed on what we're doing and give advice to each other," Groshens said. "We've made a lot of progress in a number of different aspects in lake sturgeon restoration, and we are seeing in our monitoring efforts that the lake sturgeon is coming back."

Pat Brown agrees: "With all of these partners working together toward a common goal, I feel that we've got a lot better chance of being successful."

Author: Ashley Spratt, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Photo slideshow: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsmidwest/sets/72157626665384075/
Podcast: Lake Sturgeon flash file - available upon request

Last updated: June 15, 2016