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Tribe releases sturgeon into Salmon River RESTORATION PROJECT: Children from Mohawk school get up-close look at prehistoric fish

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FORT COVINGTON — The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, in tandem with state, federal and private agencies, is 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 last week. They released the 7-inch, 5-month-old fish at two sites, one across the highway from Riverbend Dairy on Route 37 in Fort Covington and the other at Pine Ridge Park campsite on 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-age children.

Sturgeon, according to U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist Dawn Dittman, are estimated to have a 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,” she 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 8 and 12. It says females spawn once every four to nine years, males once every two to seven years. Females can live up to 150 years; 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 overfishing and habitat changes brought about by dam construction.

She said the released fish 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, Wis. They were shipped back last week to be released.

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.”

Students were able to handle the lake sturgeon as the fish swam in wading pools and actually put some of them in the river.

Bradley Fletcher, who owns Pine Ridge Park with his wife, Nancy, said he is glad to be a part of the attempt to bring 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 U.S. Fish and Game Service literature, the lake sturgeon is one of the oldest surviving species in this 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 more than 300 pounds.

Their physiology is similar to that of sharks. They are cartilaginous — meaning they have only cartilage, not bones — and have a tail and protruding pectoral fins similar to sharks, which also date to prehistory. Lake sturgeon have an armor-like coating called scutes, which offers protection from predators.

“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 large numbers, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But later, an industry grew around harvesting their eggs for caviar.

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

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