A thousand or so juvenile white sturgeon slipped into the water below Wanapum Dam on the Columbia River on Thursday.
Members of the Wanapum Band of Priest Rapids, with representatives of the Yakama Nation and the Grant County PUD, released the sturgeon into the pool as part of a yearlong project called the White Sturgeon Recovery Conservation Program.
The goal is to see the juvenile sturgeon grow up and start producing offspring in about 18 years, said Mike Clement, senior biologist with the Grant PUD. The fish can live up to 100 years.
The population of young sturgeon in the Columbia River reservoirs from Priest Rapids to Rock Island Dam near Chelan dramatically has declined.
About 6,500 juvenile sturgeon were released this week at two locations -- Priest Rapids and Wanapum Dam pools. Other fish were released near Rock Island Dam.
Clement said fish biologists suspect predation is the reason for fewer juvenile sturgeon. While larger sturgeon can hold their own against smallmouth bass and walleye, younger sturgeon less than 12 inches are vulnerable.
Releasing hundreds of juvenile sturgeon in the Priest Rapids pool Thursday will improve odds for the species' survival and reproduction in coming years, Clement said.
The White Sturgeon Recovery Conservation Program is costing ratepayers in the Grant PUD about $150,000 to $200,000 a year, he said.
Clement said the program came about after the PUD went through relicensing for operation of its dams several years ago. But efforts to capture adult sturgeon as the root stock didn't begin until last spring.
Donella Miller, manager of the Yakama Nation Fisheries White Sturgeon Project, led a team last May in catching 10 adult fish from below Priest Rapids Dam and taking them to the tribe's facility near Toppenish.
Two of the large sturgeon, which were as large as 10 feet long and more than 300 pounds, were females ripe with eggs. It was from those fish that the 9,100 baby sturgeon were hatched, raised and readied for Thursday's release.
Miller had the honor of letting the first two juvenile sturgeon slip into the river.
More than 60 people, about half of whom represented tribal groups, witnessed the event. Many of them stood in a long line, passing buckets of fish from a holding tank to the river.
"This is a good day," said Rex Buck Jr., representing the Wanapum Band.
Buck and six other men from the band held a 45-minute ceremony prior to the fish release. They followed native tradition in singing chants accompanied by drums to express gratitude for the fish and calling upon the creator to bless the event.
"It's our way to express ourselves to the creator," Buck said.
"The sturgeon are very important. This is one little part of the river, but it is important because it is a pristine part of the river," Buck said during the ceremony.
"We are doing this with a good heart and good mind so what we are doing will be blessed. The songs and drums will carry the message forth," he added.
Chuck Berrie, assistant general manager of the Grant PUD, said the sturgeon release involved many years of hard work by many people and "a lot of science and biology."
Miller said the release will benefit Native Americans and provide opportunity for more research. "It's a benefit to our resource and to our people," she said.
Clement said Thursday's release is the first step in the white sturgeon project. The next phase is monitoring the fish to see how many survive and where they go.
Each sturgeon was tagged to help researchers know later where it came from and ended up. And about 90 of the fish also have an acoustic tag that will allow researchers to track the fishes' movements, Clement said.
Buck said in addition to the sturgeon being a food resource for the tribes, they have medicinal value, both spiritually and physically.
"They have a very long life as a fish. An older fish can provide medicine that is different than from a younger one," he explained.
"Whose fish is it? It is all our fish," Buck said.