Red Lake hopes to restore sturgeon
Once common in Red Lake Reservation waters, tribal officials hope to restore a prehistoric species -- lake sturgeon. And, in the wake of a successful walleye recovery, tribal officials recently took steps to frame procedures for tribal member com...
Once common in Red Lake Reservation waters, tribal officials hope to restore a prehistoric species -- lake sturgeon.
And, in the wake of a successful walleye recovery, tribal officials recently took steps to frame procedures for tribal member commercial harvest of walleye.
On Monday, Red Lake tribal and federal fisheries staff released 10,000 sturgeon -- fingerings about 6 inches long -- at a landing on the southeast shore near where the Blackduck River enters Lower Red Lake.
The release caps a several-year effort to restore water channels to where they were prior to 1951, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a Red Lake River dam that virtually shut off the then-prevalent sturgeon from Lower Red Lake.
"Sturgeon were indigenous to Red Lake until the 1940s when the U.S. government, administered by the Army Corps of Engineers, placed a dam on the Red Lake River preventing the sturgeon from entering their traditional spawning area, although other issues contributed as well," Red Lake Department of Natural Resources Administrative Officer Dave Conner said in a tribal statement.
The Red Lake Band of Chippewa joins the White Earth Band of Chippewa in efforts to restore lake sturgeon. White Earth, in cooperation with the Minnesota DNR, has stocked sturgeon for several years. It also won a $155,000 federal grant in 2005 for lake sturgeon restocking efforts.
Conner hopes that by releasing the 5- to 6-inch sturgeon into the Blackduck River that they will return there to spawn. "But it won't be for a long time, as sturgeon females take up to 20 years to mature and reproduce, although they should grow fast doubling in size by next summer," he said.
It is believed the sturgeon will acclimate well to the Blackduck River where there is considerable suitable habitat, he said.
A year ago, the Red Lake DNR won a $159,152 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Tribal Wildlife Grants Program to reintroduce lake sturgeon -- acipenser fulvescens -- into the headwaters of the largest tributary to the Red River of the North.
The grant will allow this year's stocking of 10,000 sturgeon and of another 10,000 in 2008.
Red Lake DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees released this year's fingerlings on Monday, after tobacco was offered at the site by spiritual elder and Hereditary Chief Greeting Spears, the tribal statement said.
According to Red Lake DNR Director Al Pemberton, the sturgeon eggs came from the Manitou Rapids First Nation in Canada. "The eggs taken from the Rainy River were procured and raised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Genoa Fish Hatchery in Wisconsin. There they were fed brine shrimp at first, then bloodworm, and finally krill to reach their release size."
The last official sighting of sturgeon in Red Lake was by the Red Lake Fisheries in 1943, but sightings were reported by fishermen into the early 1950s.
"Sturgeon were important culturally to our ancestors," said Pemberton. "They not only provided meat but lamp oil, and of course the large fish -- not much more difficult to catch than a smaller fish -- fed many more people."
Sturgeon dries and smokes well and therefore was easy to store, Pemberton added. It's hoped that the current group can reach the typical size of 4- to 6-feet and 100 to 150 pounds, but may take decades to do so.
Mostly bottom-feeders, sturgeon can live 80 to 100 years and are considered ancient or primitive fish such as sharks and rays, and do not have a skeleton. Instead, it has cartilage that serves as an exoskeleton.
Sturgeon used to migrate up the Red Lake River into Red Lake for spawning, but dams cut off the sturgeons' access. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, however, has been removing the dams in recent years.
The Corps of Engineers, in an $800,000 project, constructed a fish passage structure to allow native species to re-enter the reservation lake, but keep carp out.
The 1951 dam was constructed west of Lower Red Lake on the Red Lake River and also channelized 3.2 miles of the Red Lake River through marshland, primarily to provide agricultural flood protection.
The White Earth tribal effort includes stocking 8,000 sturgeon fingerlings in White Earth Lake and 5,000 in Round Lake last year, according to the USFWS.
"The last record of a lake sturgeon in this area came from Lake Lida in 1957," USFWSA says of White Earth in a grant report. "Lake sturgeon are primitive fish that historically inhabited many of Minnesota's large rivers and the lakes associated with those rivers. Native American cultures were partially dependent on the availability of lake sturgeon.
"Indian villages were often located near waters where sturgeon spawned," the report said. "Early European settlement on Lake of the Woods was due to commercial fishing for lake sturgeon when their caviar and fine flesh were wanted worldwide. It is a goal of the resource agencies to restore lake sturgeon to this part of its original range."
In an unrelated natural resource matter, the Red Lake Tribal Council last month approved a resolution which prescribes the return of commercial fishing on the Red Lakes.
It will allow tribal members fishing for commercial efforts a daily limit of 50 walleye, or a limit of 10 walleye if fishing for personal sustenance.
With the lakes over-fished, the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and the state of Minnesota agreed to impose a 10-year moratorium on walleye harvest until the joint effort could restock the lakes.
The moratorium ended last year, and harvest limits are set by each entity according to a total quota set for the waters. The state, which controls only about half of Upper Red Lake, did boost its daily limit from two to four walleye.
On reservation waters, tribal officials plan to restart a commercial fishing operation but by hook and line, not using nets as was the practice before the moratorium.
According to the Sept. 11 resolution, commercial fishing operations resumed the next day, Sept. 12.
Hook and line is the only legal way of fishing, it states, with no limit to the number of lines per angler, only that they never be unattended. The use of trotlines or setlines is illegal. The slot limit of acceptable walleye are those between 13 and 18 inches, it said.
"Tribal members fishing for the (Red Lake) Fisheries are required to have a cooler assigned to them and returned to the plant within 24 hours," states the resolution. "This will allow an individual to harvest 50 walleyes a day ... to be turned into the Fisheries."
Coolers can be checked out at the Red Lake Fisheries Plant at Redby or the ice house in Ponemah.
"If an individual does not have this cooler, they are assumed to be fishing for themselves and are only allowed 10 walleyes," states the resolution.
Also, yellow perch over 8 inches will also be accepted for commercial sales, with no daily limit. The Red Lake Fisheries is not accepting at this time crappie, drum, northern pike and whitefish, but may at a later date when markets are established.
To be a commercial angler, the individual must be at least 18 years old, a tribal member, and be registered with Red Lake Fisheries.