White sturgeon is BC's largest freshwater fish species and is found in four major river systems including the Fraser, Nechako, Columbia and Kootenay rivers. Unfortunately all populations have experienced a serious decline in recent years causing the Federal Government to place white sturgeon on the Species at Risk Act red list. Further evidence strongly indicates that three of these populations including the Nechako, Columbia and Kootenay face a high risk of local extinction within the next generation if the situation is not remedied. Recovery initiatives are underway for each of these populations.
Given the high likelihood of local extinction, and the fact that no significant recruitment has been documented for Nechako, Columbia or Kootenay populations within the past generation, immediate action is required to prevent further losses to the population. All three recovery initiatives call for conservation fish culture as a tool to aid in the preservation of genetic material and rebuilding populations.
Support for Recovery
To date, the Kootenay and Columbia Recovery initiatives have developed special hatchery facilities to accommodate sturgeon recovery.
The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho (KTOI) first established a hatchery for Kootenay River white sturgeon recovery in Idaho in 1990. In 1998 the KTOI provided funding to the province to establish a sturgeon facility at the Kootenay Trout Hatchery near Cranbrook. The Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC (FFSBC) continues to work with another funding partner, the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program (CBFWCP), to deliver the conservation culture component of both the upper Columbia and Kootenay River white sturgeon recovery initiatives. In 2006 a pilot hatchery facility in Vanderhoof was constructed for the first sturgeon recovery efforts on the Nechako River with the support from the Ministry of Environment, Rio Tinto Alcan and the Carrier Sekani Tribe.
Efforts for Recovery
Kootenai River White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative
The FFSBC first gained experience in sturgeon conservation culture through its involvement with the KTOI and the Kootenai River White Sturgeon Recovery Plan. A partnership was established with the KTOI for the culture of this trans-boundary sturgeon population in British Columbia. In 1998 construction of the Kootenay White Sturgeon Conservation Hatchery was completed at the Kootenay Trout Hatchery complex near Fort Steele. For the Kootenay white sturgeon program the FFSBC receives fertilized sturgeon eggs from the Kootenai Tribe. The young fish are cultured for about a year before they are marked and released into the Kootenai River in Idaho, and Kootenay Lake.
Upper Columbia White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative (UCWSRI)
The FFSBC’s involvement in the UCWSRI began in 2000 with a request by provincial Ministry of Environment (MoE) to evaluate options for a pilot sturgeon culture facility that could begin production in 2001. The FFSBC designed and built the Hill Creek Pilot White Sturgeon Conservation Hatchery and the first Upper Columbia white sturgeon were spawned at this facility in the spring of 2001. The program was run out of this facility for two years but difficulties were encountered due to a number of physical limitations at the Hill Creek site. In the spring of 2003 the Upper Columbia program was transferred to the Kootenay Trout Hatchery complex where it is operated in conjunction with the Kootenay River Sturgeon Conservation Hatchery. Operating the two sturgeon facilities side by side brings a lot of advantages to both programs.
The white sturgeon culture facilities at the Kootenay Trout Hatchery provide adult holding, spawning, incubation and rearing facilities. FFSBC staff continue to expand their expertise in conservation culture for white sturgeon and maintain a close working relationship with the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho hatchery staff and sturgeon experts at the University of California at Davis, as well as other institutions and culture facilities.
Overall the conservation culture program for the Upper Columbia white sturgeon appears to be a success to date. FFSBC staff have fine-tuned spawning and rearing protocols, and hatchery survival rates of offspring are exceeding production goals. In 2002 the first cultured juveniles were released into the Upper Columbia. Approximately 9,000 marked yearlings were released at various sites during the summer downstream of Hugh Keenleyside dam on the Columbia River and in the lower Kootenay River. Another 12,000 marked yearlings were released in 2003. Since these early days the conservation fish culture of sturgeon has supported habitat research, restocking and re-introduction efforts from the USA border to the Kinbasket Reservoir. The FFSBC continues to be a key and active partner in the recovery of white sturgeon in B.C. waters.
The Nechako River White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative
In 2006 - 2009 the FFSBC along with MoE, Rio Tinto Alcan and the Carrier Sekani Tribeal Council launched a project to collect broodstock, spawn and release nearly 5000 – 6,000 juveniles per year in the Vanderhoof region of the Nechako River. The FFSBC also supports habitat remediation and recovery efforts by assisting the Technical Working Group of the Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative.