Young fish are weighed and tagged, preparing for release. (photo / Tim Collins)

Young fish are weighed and tagged, preparing for release. (photo / Tim Collins)

The next step for sturgeon is extinction

Work of recovery centre the last chance for magnificent creatures

The Nechako white sturgeon, the largest freshwater fish in Canada, is a survivor from the age of dinosaurs.

It’s likely that these giants, that can grow to more than 300 pounds and eight feet in length, arrived to the Nechako watershed more than 10,000 years ago form the Upper Columbia River, when the two water systems were connected during the last ice age.

And although, at one time, the species was so plentiful that reports from the Hudson Bay Company in the 1800’s speak of an abundance of sturgeon being caught by anglers, the most recent estimates suggest that there are only about 600 of the fish left.

Wayne Salewski, the volunteer chair of the Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative, is a passionate advocate for the initiative and explained that the work being done in the town of Vanderhoof is all that stands between the sturgeon and extinction.

“The sturgeon are SARA (Species at Risk Act) listed,” said Salewski.

“Under the Species at Risk Act you have a number of designations. You have yellow-listed, blue-listed, red-listed and then you have SARA listed. Beyond that you have extinction – dinosaurs, ivory billed woodpeckers, carrier pigeons and other species that the world will never see again. We are that close to losing these magnificent fish forever.”

According to Salewski, the problem is most likely linked to the existence of the dam on the Nechako river.

“Everywhere in the world where you have a dam on a river, you see the same kind of situation develop with fish species,” he said.

And while the exact correlation between the dam and the fish decline is not yet certain, there are a number of indicators about what the problems might be.

Water levels and the fluctuating water temperatures in the river are commonly thought to be at the heart of the situation according to many community residents, but the more serious culprit may be silt.

“Because you don’t have a normal flow in the river, the crevasses and irregularities on the river bottom have been silted over,” said Salewski.

“You go to the river bottom and it’s as smooth and hard as a linoleum floor. When the sturgeon deposit their eggs, instead of adhering to crevices, sunken logs and rocks, they just bounce along until they have been coated so heavily with silt that they can’t hatch. As well, the longer they bounce, the more vulnerable they are to predators.”

To address that situation, the Centre has experimented with constructing new spawning beds, using a barge to deposit rocks in the traditional spawning areas, and periodically lifting and “fluffing” the sediment off those rocks.

But the main initiative of the Centre involves harvesting eggs from mature female sturgeon and, with the assistance of volunteers, mixing the “milk” from mature male sturgeon (which is unceremoniously extracted with a plunger) to fertilize the eggs.

The hatchling’s are then raised in tanks in the Centre’s high tech facility until they are about two years of age.

During that time they are weighed, measured tagged with “pit tags” and radio telemetry, and raised to a size with the best chance for survival in the wild.At that point they are taken to the river in early May and, again with the help of volunteers, are released into the river at about nine separate locations.

And despite the high tech approach to the process there is still not a good understanding of how many fish need to be raised in this way to give the species a chance at survival.

“That’s really something we’re still studying,” said Mike Manky, one of the two full time staff at the facility.

“It’ll take a number of years to study the survival rates. We have a SARA permit to raise up to 12,000 fish a year, but we are being cautious not to over populate the river basin with young fish and have been releasing about 5,000 a year.”

From that number, Manky estimates that only a tiny fraction of the fish will reach sexual maturity (25 years old for males and 45 for females).

“We lose a lot to predation by otters, osprey, seagulls and other animals, and it takes a long time to study how many fish we have to release to rebuild the natural population.”

But for Salewski, the effort is worth it.

“What is saving a species worth?,” he asked.

“We are literally saving the DNA of this species so they don’t disappear from the planet.”

Salewski’s first encounter with the sturgeon came back in the 1970’s when, thrilled at having caught a large sturgeon, he was hosting a barbecue for friends where the fish was consumed. It was then that he was told that the fish he had caught was more than 65 years old. Someone had “counted the rings” on the fish and determined it was born in 1917.

“I had an epiphany that day. I knew we had no business destroying these creatures for what?… a few hours of feasting? It was just wrong.”

It’s a message that the Centre promotes to the thousands of tourists and school children that annually tour their Vanderhoof facility, and it’s a message that Salewski hopes will have a long term impact.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

The next step for sturgeon is extinction

Wayne Salewski holds models of the young fish, showing the size of the fish that are soon to be released by the Centre. (photo / Tim Collins)

Wayne Salewski holds models of the young fish, showing the size of the fish that are soon to be released by the Centre. (photo / Tim Collins)

Just Posted

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
Head-on collision Jan. 14 claims one life west of Fort St. James

Jenkins said alcohol, as well as road surface conditions, have been ruled out as factors

Nechako River, Vanderhoof, B.C. (Aman Parhar/Omineca Express)
Officials keeping close tabs on Nechako River after ice jam causes area flooding

District of Vanderhoof Mayor Gerry Thiessen, though, said water levels have gone down, for now

Vanderhoof home sees water from the Nechako move up into the yard, and within hours, water was seen up to the deck. Ken Young, Vanderhoof councillor posted this photo on social media.
Mayor concerned about ice jams in the Nechako river

“We have never lived with a frozen river at this magnitude during our time in council,” mayor said.

A scene from “Canada and the Gulf War: In their own words,” a video by The Memory Project, a program of Historica Canada, is shown in this undated illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Historica Canada
New video marks Canada’s contributions to first Gulf War on 30th anniversary

Veterans Affairs Canada says around 4,500 Canadian military personnel served during the war

A 17-year-old snowmobiler used his backcountry survival sense in preparation to spend the night on the mountain near 100 Mile House Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021 after getting lost. (South Cariboo Search and Rescue Facebook photo)
Teen praised for backcountry survival skills after getting lost in B.C.’s Cariboo mountains

“This young man did everything right after things went wrong.”

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on December 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
No place for ‘far right’ in Conservative Party, Erin O’Toole says

O’Toole condemned the Capitol attack as ‘horrifying’ and sought to distance himself and the Tories from Trumpism

A passer by walks in High Park, in Toronto, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. This workweek will kick off with what’s fabled to be the most depressing day of the year, during one of the darkest eras in recent history. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
‘Blue Monday’ getting you down? Exercise may be the cure, say experts

Many jurisdictions are tightening restrictions to curb soaring COVID-19 case counts

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19: Provinces work on revised plans as Pfizer-BioNTech shipments to slow down

Anita Anand said she understands and shares Canadians’ concerns about the drug company’s decision

Tourists take photographs outside the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday August 26, 2011. A coalition of British Columbia tourism industry groups is urging the provincial government to not pursue plans to ban domestic travel to fight the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. travel ban will harm struggling tourism sector, says industry coalition

B.C. government would have to show evidence a travel ban is necessary

(Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
‘Targeted’ shooting in Coquitlam leaves woman in hospital

The woman suffered non-life threatening injuries in what police believe to be a targeted shooting Saturday morning

JaHyung Lee, “Canada’s oldest senior” at 110 years old, received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. He lives at Amenida Seniors Community in Newton. (Submitted photo: Amenida Seniors Community)
A unique-looking deer has been visiting a Nanoose Bay property with its mother. (Frieda Van der Ree photo)
A deer with 3 ears? Unique animal routinely visits B.C. property

Experts say interesting look may be result of an injury rather than an odd birth defect

Most Read