© By Othmar Vohringer
The federal government consequently classified the upper Columbia white sturgeon population as ‘Endangered’ under the Species at Risk Act in 2006.
Now, it looks like efforts to protect the species are working – with an increase in sightings of young white sturgeon in the City of Trail over the summer months. Gerry Nellestijn, an Environmental Watershed Steward in the Kootenays, who is part of a team that monitors between Hugh Keenleyside Dam and the Canada/US border, has seen more white sturgeon in the Columbia River, downstream of Trail, in recent years than ever before.
This increase can be largely attributed to the Upper Columbia White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative (UCWSRI), a trans-boundary collaboration that aims to bring this ancient fish back from the brink of extinction.
The recovery includes a ‘rear and release’ program of young white sturgeon, known as juveniles. In 2001, the UCWSRI released 10,000 to 12,000 juveniles into the upper Columbia River, including some at Beaver Creek, south of Trail. Today, UCWSRI only releases 2,000 to 3,000 annually due to the ongoing success of the program. Experts expected only 10 per cent of juveniles released to survive in the wild; however, it is now estimated that 30 per cent have survived.
It’s also estimated that the number of sturgeon in the upper Columbia River may have increased tenfold over the last decade, thanks to the recovery initiative.
Furthermore, the juveniles released in 2001 through 2005 have grown in size from around ¾ of a foot at release to more than 1.5 feet, making sightings easier and consequently, more frequent.
However, James Crossman, a Sturgeon Biologist from BC Hydro, a partner of the UCWSRI, insists that we should interpret these numbers with caution. “While numbers of younger sturgeon in the upper Columbia River are undoubtedly increasing, it’s important to realize that these numbers are being artificially controlled through our ‘rear and release’ program.
“Currently, only 0.5 per cent of the juvenile sturgeon we collect in our monitoring programs in the Upper Columbia River resulted from natural breeding. If these prehistoric fish are to survive long-term, we need to understand why younger age classes are not surviving to adulthood.”
The UCWSRI continues to investigate this reproduction issue. In the short term however, people can still expect to see and enjoy increasing numbers of sturgeon in Trail, while the UCWSRI works to develop a long-term, sustainable solution.