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St. Regis Mohawk Tribe works to restore ‘sacred fish’

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AKWESASNE –– The lake sturgeon is sacred to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. It has long been a food source and a significant part of the tribe’s culture.

But its numbers have dwindled since Europeans settled in the area. Now, the tribe’s Environmental Division is working in collaboration with Clarkson University and Mohawk sturgeon fishermen to restore the lake sturgeon population.

Lake sturgeon populations were impacted greatly by settlement and development in the areas around the waterways where they live and spawn. Habitats were fragmented by the construction of hydroelectric dams. Large numbers of sturgeon were killed as a nuisance bycatch fish by colonial settlers in the 18th century, and later harvested for their meat and roe or eggs between the mid-19th and 20th centuries when the fish were discovered to be a money-maker for commercial fisheries.

The sturgeon’s life cycle also contributed to the population drop. Female sturgeon can live 80 to 150 years old, but females become sexually mature between 14 to 33 years of age and only spawn once every 4 to 9 years.

But the work being done by the tribe and its partners appears to be helping restore the fish to its native habitat.

“Populations appear to be rebounding in comparison to the past 100 years, most likely due to stocking and habitat restoration programs,” Jessica Jock, the Environmental Division program manager for the St. Lawrence River Area of Concern, said in an email.

Ms. Jock said it is critical for the sturgeon to have suitable habitat available when females are ready to spawn, to ensure reproduction success and long-term population rebound.

Lake sturgeon require fast flowing waters and rocky bottoms with living spaces between aquatic sediments for the eggs to be protected during spawn and to protect the fry after they hatch, according to Ms. Jock.

“Most ideal spawning river stretches would also include a protected vegetated/sandy bottom pool downstream of the spawning riffle for fingerling and juvenile foraging and growth,” Ms. Jock said.

Collaborative effort

According to Ms. Jock, the tribe’s Environment Division first collaborated with Dr. James Bonner of Clarkson University in 2008 on a National Science Foundation research proposal. The proposal was to develop and field test in-situ water monitoring stations in the St. Lawrence River and its surrounding tributaries.

The NSF funded the proposal, which allowed for the field testing of a fixed platform water quality monitoring station in the Grasse River in 2009 and a mobile station in the St. Lawrence River in 2010, according to Ms. Jock. These sites were selected based on water quality impairments from industrial toxins and due to events such as water level changes, ice jams and backwater effects.

In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative gave funds to the tribe for lake sturgeon restoration. The tribe’s Environment Division contracted Clarkson University through Bonner to use real-time in-situ monitoring equipment to characterize the hydrodynamics of targeted lake sturgeon spawning areas in the St. Lawrence River, Raquette River and Grasse River, according to Ms. Jock.

Ms. Jock said these locations are part of the River and Estuary Observatory Network and were chosen due to their ideal conditions with water depth, substrate and water velocities which are suitable for sturgeon spawning and juvenile rearing. All of this was verified by Environment Division staff and through collaboration with Mohawk sturgeon fishermen, according to Ms. Jock.

The projects focus is on the Grasse River.

According to Ms. Jock, the Grasse River has the most ideal habitat characteristics for the migratory Lake St. Francis sturgeon populations and residential sturgeon looking for suitable spawning grounds.

“The Grasse River is also considered Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitat (SCFWH) as designated by [the New York Department of State] and [the state Department of Environmental Conservation] due to its importance to lake sturgeon spawning and rearing. The Grasse River provides adequate juvenile rearing habitat due to its sandy bottom characteristics and free-flowing open conditions between the Madrid Dam, and the St. Lawrence River,” Ms. Jock wrote. “Engineering design and habitat restoration plans are yet to be developed and finalized as per work objectives under GLRI, and will proceed in 2015 by SRMT in collaboration with appropriate Resource Agencies.”

The project has a cultural aspect in addition to its ecological work.

Environment Division Wildlife Technician Jay Wilkins has been collaborating with Mohawk sturgeon fishermen to better understand traditional fishing techniques, practices and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), according to Ms. Jock.

TEK is often related to elder stories, language and familiarity with the environment and fishing passed down from generations, Ms. Jock said.

“This TEK and Environment Division staff familiarity with the rivers of interest helped identify appropriate lake sturgeon spawning sites. The Tribe’s partnership with Mohawk Sturgeon Fishermen, and inclusion of Clarkson’s in-situ sensor technology will enable a comprehensive ecological, scientific and cultural approach for field decision, habitat restoration and lake sturgeon population renewal. The field data is still be collecting this year, and should be publicly available in 2015,” Ms. Jock said.

A sacred animal

“Lake sturgeon are considered sacred in that they are highly valued as a traditional and current food source, specific body parts used for spiritual medicinal purposes, and held in high esteem as fulfilling an important role and duty in the natural world as assigned by the Creator. They are respected for their size, strength, and longevity and historically harvested as a protein source by Iroquois communities,” Ms. Jock said.

According to Ms. Jock, the relationship between Mohawks and the environmental elements –– which include fishing –– is outlined in the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen, translated as the “Words that come before all else”.

“One purpose of these ‘words’ is to bring people’s minds together and give gratitude to the natural environment so that the lake sturgeon may continue its life cycle and duty to benefit the natural world, and people. And, that the people in return are fulfilling their duty to protect the lake sturgeon, a respected ‘elder’ to Mohawk people, and its natural environment,” Ms. Jock said.

Lake sturgeon are a prehistoric fish, more than 135 million years old. These fish have been documented in historical records, and archeological remnants have been found in some Late Woodland Period (between 920 and 940 A.D.) village sites in Quebec. They can be found in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River watersheds.

“Part of Mohawk community culture and food sharing tied to lake sturgeon is passed down from generation to generation of Mohawk sturgeon fishermen, and is still practiced today,” Ms. Jock said.

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