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Return of an ancient fish

Reuben Edwards, 9, shows off a sturgeon fingerling before releasing the fish into White Earth Lake Tuesday afternoon. Photo by - Brian Basham1 / 3
Setting them free: Kylei VanWert, 9, and Chastity Thompson, 10, release a couple of sturgeon fingerlings into the cold water of White Earth Lake Tuesday afternoon. The two, along with many classmates from the Circle of Life Academy and the Naytahwaush Charter School, helped release about 5,000 sturgeon into the lake. Photo by - Brian Basham2 / 3
Students from the Naytahwaush Charter School pose for a picture in front of White Earth Lake. They were part of a sturgeon fingerling release program. Photo by - Brian Basham3 / 3

Cold winds and intermittent rain and snow blew over White Earth Lake Tuesday afternoon -- but that didn't stop students from the Circle of Life Academy and Naytahwaush Charter School from helping to disperse approximately 6,000 fingerling sturgeon into its waters.

After all, the 4-month-old fingerlings had traveled a long way to find their new home, from the fish hatchery in Ontario, Canada, where they had been born and raised.

"They come from the Manitou Rapids Reserve," said Mike Swan, who serves as director of natural resources for the White Earth Band of Ojibwe as well as being one of its spiritual leaders.

Manitou Rapids is home to the Rainy River First Nation, and several of that tribe's spiritual leaders were on hand for Tuesday's celebration as well.

One of Rainy River's leaders, Willie Wilson, helped Swan with the pipe ceremony that opened the afternoon's festivities; because of the inclement weather, this ceremony was held indoors, at the nearby White Earth Rediscovery Center.

"We asked the creator to watch over the fish, and everyone who attended the ceremony," Swan said, explaining the purpose of the ritual.

The sturgeon is considered sacred by the Ojibwe; once found in abundance on both White Earth and Round lakes, this ancient fish was eventually "harvested out" in the region, he added.

But in the late 1990s, a plan was formed to reintroduce the sturgeon into both White Earth and Round lakes, and every year since 2000, approximately 8,000 fingerlings have been released into White Earth Lake, and another 5,000 into Round Lake, Swan said.

This year, that number was reduced to about 6,000 for White Earth Lake and 4,000 for Round Lake, said Scott Yess of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service -- because they don't want the lakes to become overpopulated.

"They're a hardy fish," Yess added.

In fact, said White Earth fisheries manager Randall Zortman, "The survival rate is pretty close to 100 percent."

This is because the sturgeon has few natural predators, he added -- other than humans.

One of the oldest species of fish known to man, the sturgeon can reach weights in excess of two hundred pounds and often lives more than 200 years, according to information available on the tribe's website,

Fish have been found in White Earth Lake that were up to 40 inches long, Zortman said.

Yess said that, based upon the total number of sturgeon released into the two lakes each year since 2001, it can be estimated that there are now approximately 87,000 sturgeon living in White Earth Lake, and another 52,000 in Round Lake.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454