BONNERS FERRY — Eight-year-old Ella Alexander gently scooped the young Kootenai white sturgeon from one of the waiting buckets, carried it carefully to water’s edge at the Waterways Boat Launch, and under the watchful eyes of Mark Elliston Jr., aquacultural technician for the Kootenai Tribe — she released the juvenile fish into the Kootenai River to begin its new life. Ella went back, fish after fish, naming each one as she turned it loose.
“I named a few John, because it was funny,” she said with a smile.
Ella and many other children and adults came down to participate in the annual Kootenai Tribe sturgeon release on May 10, beginning at 9 a.m., where 1,000 young fish would begin their journey.
Stephanie Alexander brought Ella because she likes all types of animals and bugs … except spiders.
“If it was a spider release, we would not be here,” said Alexander with a laugh. “We have done the sturgeon release before, so we thought we would come and do it again.”
There was more to the sturgeon release than just the experience of touching a part of living history. There were tables and displays set up, including one showing the process that it takes to get to the point of release.
There were detailed photos showing the PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tagging process. The PIT tag identifies individual fish and linking information to that individual fish, such as its length and weight, year class, and identifies the parents. The PIT tag is only applied to juvenile fish that weigh in excess of 30 grams, however all young sturgeon are marked via a process called scute removal. This also acts as a backup if the PIT tag fails to ensure that hatchery-reared fish and naturally surviving fish can be identified.
They had also set up a mock fertilization station that started with a smaller version of the stainless steel bowl that they use.
“We will put those eggs in a bowl, then we add some milt from the males to river water separately, activating the sperm,” explained Kevin James, assistant manager at the Twin Rivers Hatchery.
Once the milt hits the water, it activates, and then the activated sperm in the river water is added to the eggs, and they have about two minutes to fertilize while stirring before all those eggs become sticky. Then a very fine clay is added that will remove the adhesive from the egg surface during the stirring.
James demonstrated to the audience the stirring technique using two large feathers.
“Once that process is done, the eggs become very adhesive and they start to clump — which is great for the river system — but not for the hatchery,” he said.
James then explained that they will stir the eggs for an hour, to an hour and half, until they are no longer sticky.
“We do that with a simple hand check,” he said while demonstrating. “You put your hand in the eggs and if all of them slide off your hand then they are good to go.”
James then explained the rest of the process that led to hatching eggs in nine to 13 days.
“The demonstration where they walk you through everything is nice,” said Alexander. “I did not know that they stirred with feathers.”
Wildlife Technician for the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, Kina Wasmer, had a display to raise awareness of the wildlife department and its projects.
“We are working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, collecting grizzly bear DNA, trying to monitor the grizzly bear populations in the county and the area,” said Wasmer. “We’ve got some mitigation properties that we are working on to try to restore some of the natural river channels, and create some of the wetland that was lost with the dam and dikes.”
Although the actual sturgeon release portion of the event continues to be popular, many people took time to learn more about the projects and the mechanics behind all that the Kootenai Tribe is doing in its effort to protect and restore the land.
“People have been really responsive and open to hear what we are doing, and why we are doing it,” said Wasmer.
For Mark Elliston, Jr., Aquacultural Technician for the Kootenai Tribe, standing in the shallow water of the boat launch, educating children and adults alike, while caretaking and observing that each and every fish was handled with care, is part of the reason that he loves his job.
Elliston talked about the 12,000 juvenile sturgeon to be released this year from the Twin Rivers Tribal Sturgeon and Burbot Hatchery, “We have a good year class; a lot of good, healthy fish, and good size.”
Another portion of the year class being raised at the original Tribal Sturgeon Hatchery using a different grow-out environment will be released in the Fall 2019.
Something new this year was their first educational release that took place on Thursday.
“We set up some educational stations and walked the kids through the process, as far as eggs, spawning, tagging, teaching them a little bit about the aquaculture — what we do, why we do it — and a little bit about conservation,” explained Elliston “We are trying to get them on the conservation team.”
The events had fourth and fifth grade students from area schools that attended. For the general public, Friday was the day to come and be part of history.
“It looks like it is going really well,” said Angela Cooper, Vice Chair of the Kootenai Tribal Council. “We have a good turnout of people. Our crew looks like they are having fun. I know they really enjoy this day — where their hard work really comes to an end for the year — before they start over, of course.”
“I am really proud of the program,” Cooper continued. “I am really proud of our crew members who put a lot of work into getting this all done.”
“The tribe is doing a really good job and put out a tremendous effort in taking care of these white sturgeon, and we are starting to see the benefits in the community and the river systems here,” said Elliston.
For the 1,000 juvenile white sturgeon venturing out into the wilds of the Kootenai River, they are another chapter in the history of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, and their continuing effort and dedication, as guardians of the land.
And according to a little girl named Ella, a few of those baby sturgeons are now named “John.”