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 - the Nechako, Columbia and Kootenay - face a high risk of local extinction within the next generation. The Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC is participating in recovery initiatives for each of these populations. All three initiatives call for conservation fish culture as a tool to aid in the preservation of genetic material and rebuilding populations.
Support for Recovery
The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho first established a hatchery for Kootenay River white sturgeon recovery in Idaho in 1990. In 1998, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho provided funding to the province to establish a sturgeon facility at the Kootenay Trout Hatchery near Cranbrook. The Freshwater Fisheries Society released their last Kootenay white sturgeon in 2015, as the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho will continue this successful recovery program from their new hatchery in Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho.
With the help of funding partners BC Hydro and the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program, the Society continues to deliver the conservation culture component of the upper Columbia white sturgeon recovery initiative.
In 2006, with support from the Province of BC, Rio Tinto Alcan and the Carrier Sekani Tribal council, a pilot hatchery facility was constructed for the first sturgeon recovery efforts on the Nechako River. A permanent sturgeon conservation centre, owned and operated by the Freshwater Fisheries Society, was opened in 2014.
Efforts for Recovery
The Nechako River White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative
The Nechako River white sturgeon population has declined from roughly 5,000 in the mid 1900’s to about 600 fish today, most of which are over 45 years of age. The lack of young sturgeon in the Nechako means that an entire generation is already missing. The Nechako white sturgeon was declared an endangered species in 2003 and listed under the federal Species at Risk Act in 2006.
At the new Nechako River Sturgeon Conservation Centre, the Freshwater Fisheries Society raises and release up to 12,000 juvenile sturgeon each year – all part of a larger effort to rebuild the population and restore the ability of sturgeon to spawn successfully in their natural habitat. The juveniles are tagged prior to release so their behaviour and survival can be closely monitored.
The new centre is the culmination of many years of hard work and collaboration led by the Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative, a community-based group representing a broad spectrum of interests, including the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council and Saik’uz First Nation.
The Province contributed about $3.5 million toward the $5.5 million cost of construction, with Rio Tinto contributing another $1.5 million. The remainder of the funding came from the Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC, the District of Vanderhoof, Fisheries & Oceans Canada and other sources.
Rio Tinto Alcan will cover the estimated $450,000 in annual operating costs for the next 10 years, most of which will come from the Nechako Environmental Enhancement Fund, established in 1997 to address the downstream impacts of Kenney Dam on the Nechako River.
Upper Columbia White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative (UCWSRI)
The Kootenay Trout Hatchery’s involvement in the Upper Columbia White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative began in 2000 with a request by the provincial Ministry of Environment to evaluate options for a pilot sturgeon culture facility that could begin production in 2001. The provincial hatchery program 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 sturgeon 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 brought a lot of advantages to both programs. However, the Kootenay River program moved to Bonner's Ferry Idaho in 2015 and no longer operates out of the Kootenay Trout Hatchery.
The white sturgeon culture facilities at the Kootenay Trout Hatchery provide adult holding, spawning, incubation and rearing facilities. Freshwater Fisheries Society staff continue to expand their expertise in conservation culture for white sturgeon and maintain a close working relationship with 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. Society 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 Freshwater Fisheries Society continues to be a key and active partner in the recovery of white sturgeon in B.C. waters.
Kootenai River White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative
The Freshwater Fisheries Society first gained experience in sturgeon conservation culture through its involvement with the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and the Kootenai River White Sturgeon Recovery Plan. A partnership was established with the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho 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 Society received fertilized sturgeon eggs from the Kootenai Tribe. The young fish were cultured for about a year before they were marked and released into the Kootenai River in Idaho, and Kootenay Lake. This program is no longer active at the Kootenay Trout Hatchery.