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Sturgeon stocking program underway in Franklin County

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FORT COVINGTON - The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe along with state, federal, and private agencies, are taking on an effort to bring a prehistoric fish back to local waters.

The tribal Environment Division, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, released 900 lake sturgeon fingerlings into the lower Salmon River on Tuesday morning. They released the roughly seven-inch, five-month-old fish at two sites, one across the highway from Riverbend Dairy on state Route 37 in Fort Covington and the other at Pine Ridge Park campsite on state Route 122 in Constable.

At the Pine Ridge Park release, students from the Akwesasne Freedom School got a hands-on lesson about the fish and the project. The Freedom School is a Mohawk language-immersion school for elementary-aged children.

Sturgeon, according to U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research ecologist Dawn Dittman, are estimated to have a current population of less than 1 percent of their historical numbers. She said their slow growth to spawning maturity makes it difficult for their numbers to increase naturally.

“Natural increases take forever, essentially,” Ms. Dittman said.

Literature provided by the Fish and Wildlife Service says female sturgeon generally reproduce for the first time between ages 24 and 26, males between ages eight and 12. It says females spawn once every four to nine years; males once every two to seven years. The pamphlet says the females can live up to 150 years, while males typically live 50 to 60 years.

Barbara Tarbell, lake sturgeon restoration project manager, said their shrinking population can be attributed to a number of factors, including over-fishing and habitat changes brought about by construction of dams.

She said the fish released on Tuesday will mature in the shallow waters of the Salmon River and as they get older will migrate to the St. Lawrence River, where they will seek deep water until they reach spawning age.

“The goal is for them to come back here and spawn in 20 or so years,” she said. “This is the perfect habitat for them as they’re growing.”

The tribal Environment Division harvested the eggs in early June and sent them to a fish hatchery in Genoa, Wisc. They were trucked in Monday night to be released Tuesday.

Each fish is injected with a passive integrated transponder, a microchip that can be detected with a special electronic device that tells information about the fish such as when it was released, where, and how old it was at the time the tag was inserted.

Wathiiostha, a Freedom School teacher, said the day was a valuable life experience for her students.

“It gives them more of a connection, a hands-on connection with the fish and why we give them thanks and why we need them,” she said. “I think they made quite the bond today with them.”

Part of the day included the students being able to handle the lake sturgeon as they swam in wading pools and actually putting some of them in the river.

Brad Fletcher, who owns Pine Ridge Park along with his wife, Nancy, said he is glad to be a part of the attempt at bringing the sturgeon back to the area.

“This is great ... we’re so happy to be a part of having sturgeon released here and making it interesting for the kids from the Freedom School,” he said. “We’re glad they (tribe) invited us to be a part of it.”

According to the U.S. Fish and Game Service literature, lake sturgeon are one of the oldest surviving species in our area.

“Contemporaries of dinosaurs, lake sturgeon have remained unchanged for millions of years,” the pamphlet reads, adding that they have lived in the Great Lakes for at least 10,000 years. They can grow up to nine feet in length and weigh in at over 300 pounds, the pamphlet states.

Their physiology is similar to that of a shark. They are cartilaginous and have a tail and protruding pectoral fins similar to sharks, which also date to pre-history. Lake sturgeon have an armor-like coating called scutes, which offer protection from predators.

Sturgeon are a docile fish – they are jawless and have a protruding vacuum mouth that they use to feed on crustaceans, small fish, and other organisms on the river bottom.

“Native Americans revered the sturgeon as an important part of their culture that provided the community with food, oil, leather, and other staples,” the pamphlet says.

Until 1850, commercial fishermen saw sturgeon as a nuisance and killed them in enormous numbers, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. After that, a huge industry sprung around sturgeon, including harvesting their eggs as caviar; total catch peaked around the mid-1880s at around 8.6 million pounds.

It is currently listed as a threatened species in New York state – they must be immediately and safely released if caught. Ontario also bans keeping sturgeon.

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