On May 18, as part of the Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative, the Nechako White Sturgeon Conservation Centre hosted a spawning event to continue their conservation efforts, while also providing an important educational outreach to local schools and residents.
“It consists of collecting the eggs and milt from the sturgeon and the process of fertilizing the eggs and growing fish,” says Wayne Salewski, the chair of the Nechako White Sturgeon Community Working Group. “All of that kind of comes under the umbrella of a spawning event.”
Salewski says that this time of the year brings the most opportune moment to have a spawning event, as all of mother nature’s factors seem to line up perfectly for the event to run smoothly and successfully.
“Typically, around this time the ice goes off the river, the water temperature starts to rise, the fish come out of their winter deep holes and start feeding, breeding and spawning,” says Salewski. “The spawning beds are right here in downtown Vanderhoof, so we fish for those sturgeon based on the fact that they are coming into the spawning beds.”
“We pull them out onto the boat, we look at their gonads, so that we can understand their eggs and their structure to determine if they are a candidate. If it turns out that they are in fact a candidate, we put them into the tanks. If they are not, we simply re-release them, usually with an updated tag if that is appropriate,” says Salewski.
Elementary school students were lucky enough to take part in the event, by witnessing just how the eggs are harvested from the sturgeon. Salewski believes that providing an educational outreach is an all important factor when it comes to these kind of events.
“It’s always a positive experience when students come out,” says Salewski. “We have a great relationship with the school district, so that’s a real positive that we are able to get that message out. So, education is happening for sure.”
Although the students and teachers that attended the spawning event only were able to see a brief piece of the action, Salewski explains that in order to ensure a successful spawning, there are numerous components involved.
“It’s a big event. Lots of coordination, lots of people, lots of volunteers and lots of different intricacies in the process,” says Salewski. “We actually had first indications of spawning at 4:30 in the morning. By 1:30 in the afternoon, the team is set up and ready to go for the event is starting. We were going to spawn four fish and then we had six that were ready, so the process went through the full day right into dark again.”
“But, it was ultimately a very successful event at the end of the day,” says Salewski.
As successful as the event luckily turned out to be, Salewski describes some of the behind-the-scene elements as a bit of a rodeo.
“The issue that we have here is that we are spawning up to 10 females and up to 16 different male sturgeon,” says Salewski. “We have them into our tanks, so first we have to cowboy them out of the tanks. It can be a bit of a rodeo to get them upside down and into the stretcher, so there’s a challenge right there, just getting them out of the tank.”
“They are big and heavy fish,” continues Salewski. “We have people getting in and out of the tank, it’s slippery and you can’t drop a fish because that really isn’t an option, so it is really a bit of a rodeo with these fish before we get them upside down and onto the sawhorses.”
Salewski says that however difficult it may be to wrangle the more than 200 pound fish, keeping the animal happy, relaxed and calm is also extremely beneficial to the process.
“We have to keep the animal healthy and hydrate them all the time, which includes wiping their fins down,” says Salewski. “Then we have to coax those eggs out of the animal and collect them without them getting wet. There is just a number of intricate steps that go into a successful operation and anything and everything can go wrong.”
“It’s alive,” says Salewski. “It’s a big fish who’s probably thinking ‘What the hell are you guys doing?’”
Whilst this years successful spawning event just took place, Salewski and the team of staff and volunteers at the Nechako White Sturgeon Conservation Centre are already looking towards next years spawning event.
“I look forward to doing it again,” says Salewski. “The date is picked, the first Friday of May next year and we will be releasing these same fish that we’re doing right now on that day right here in Vanderhoof. So, we have a year to look forward to watch the growth and progress of these fish and share that with our community.”
As time consuming, strenuous and intricate the spawning process can be, Salewski humbly admits that they are just doing what they can for the community.
“We’re doing the work we’ve been assigned to do, which is hopefully saving a species that is going instinct and all of it is a great process,” says Salewski.
“It’s good fun. It’s challenging, but it’s a rewarding process.”