MANISTEE COUNTY — Children and adults alike plunged their hands into buckets filled with small lake sturgeon, and carefully dipped each one into the Manistee River with well wishes on their new journey.
The 14th annual Nmé (Sturgeon) Release was held by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians (LRBOI) on Saturday at Rainbow Bend Boat Launch. The LRBOI Natural Resources Department reared and returned the native species back into the river.
Starting their 100-year journey into the wild, around 135 sturgeon ranging from 6-9 inches long were handed to each attendee, and released after a prayer was given. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, male sturgeon can live as long as 55 years old and females can live around 80-150 years old.
LRBOI Ogema Larry Romanelli gave a speech about the importance of giving back to nature.
“This fish can live to be 100 years old,” he said, “When you know the cultural significance, and you see these young people and realize that the same fish might still be alive that this little girl (released) — that’s so exciting to me.”
During the ceremony, a smoking pipe was presented, which is customary to all big ceremonies to offer tobacco to the creator for all the things brought to the world. Then, more than 50 people lined up to help release the sturgeon.
“The longer I live and the longer I am in my position, I realize that these things do not just happen,” Romanelli said. “All things are connected and everything is in cycles. There’s not a true end and there’s not a true beginning… it’s just a matter of faith.”
The LRBOI Natural Resources Department began the streamside sturgeon rehabilitation program in 2004. The juvenile fish are collected from the wild in the springtime, and reared in a streamside facility until mature enough to be released.
Corey Jerome, fisheries biologist with the department, said after the fish spawn eggs and larvae are collected, and the sturgeon are raised in river water. Fish are tagged prior to their departure for future evaluation.
Jerome said the release was done earlier this year than the event last year, due to work being done by the staff members at the Muskegon River next week.
“Typically we would have done the release next weekend or the weekend after,” he said. “Our staff would have been really light, so we decided to move it up earlier.”
Frank Beaver, head of the LRBOI Natural Resources Department, said the total sturgeon released for the program has hit about 1,200. Beaver said other organizations are interested in the LRBOI rehabilitation effort, as well.
“Protecting the species for future generations is beneficial for the tribe and the community,” said Beaver. “The release is part of a long term effort toward stewardship of the sturgeon. Our goal is to also restore harmony and connectivity between Nmé and the people.”
Gary DiPiazza, with the LRBOI Tribal Council, said this was the third largest release to date. In the past, DiPiazza said the most fish released at one time hit more than 300 sturgeon.
“We introduce them because we are stewards of the environment,” he said. “It’s quite fulfilling because water is life, and everybody comes from water. We give back to the environment, by releasing the sturgeon that was once a diminishing population.”
Before the release, people were invited to see the facility where the sturgeon were reared, and were able to interact with the species. Many of the participants on Saturday were experiencing the ceremony for the first time.
“It’s great to see so many beautiful young people here today,” Romanelli said. “Thank you to everyone for being a part of this with us.”