It would have seemed ludicrous over 100 years ago to believe that lake sturgeon would ever need drastic measures to ensure its survival in Manitoba. In the late 19th century, sturgeon were being taken from Manitoba’s lakes and rivers in prodigious quantities. At one point, the oil-rich archaic fish was even being used to fuel steamboats as they travelled this province’s waterways.
But what had been seen as an inexhaustible supply decades ago has been brought near the brink of extinction. Overfishing, loss of habitat and the construction of hydro dams have been the greatest threats to lake sturgeon over the years. They also are blessed, or inflicted, depending on one’s perspective, with a gourmand’s delight; that is, caviar.
While human intervention has preserved the prehistoric fish — today’s sturgeon look much the same as they did 100 million years ago — from extinction, they have still disappeared in many of the province’s waterways. To rectify an historic mistake, Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh announced that the province and Manitoba Hydro will undertake the reintroduction of lake sturgeon into rivers and lakes where they have disappeared.
The Manitoba government will spend $250,000 over the next five years towards research on sturgeon recovery and Hydro has promised another $50,000 annually. In particular, Hydro has agreed to oversee sturgeon recovery in northern waterways, such as the Nelson River, especially since the Keeyask generating station being built over the next few years will become another barrier to the fish. Hydro plans to reintroduce sturgeon to the Nelson below the proposed dam.
Since 1989, Hydro has operated a sturgeon hatchery in Grand Rapids and releases one-year-old fish into selected waters, such as the Winnipeg River. But even with these efforts, sturgeon remain a scarce fish.
Sturgeon are a long-lived species, with mature fish attaining ages of over 100 years. The greatest problem is that sturgeon do not reach sexual maturity until at least 20 years and they spawn infrequently; up to five years between spawns.
While there remains populations of lake sturgeon in some of Manitoba’s lakes and streams, its original range has significantly shrunk, especially in Lake Winnipeg where commercial fishermen of yesteryear marvelled at its plentiful numbers.
W.T. Urquart, the federal fisheries inspector in Manitoba, reported to Sir Charles Tupper, the minister of marine and fisheries, on January 11, 1872, that sturgeon were “found in great abundance and of large size in almost all the lakes and rivers of the North-west (including Lake Winnipeg) ... More especially in the waters lying east of the Grand Rapids on the Saskatchewan is the fish found in the greatest numbers.
“They have been taken both in the Red River and the Assiniboine near Fort Garry, weighing from 60 to 80 pounds (27.2 to 36.3 kilograms) each, and a sturgeon weighing 40 pounds (18.1 kilograms) is not at all uncommon.”
Urquart said a considerable quantity of sturgeon oil was made in Manitoba. “It is not exported, but used as a machine oil and found to answer the purpose remarkably well.”
In 1884, Alex McQueen, who had taken over local inspection duties from Urquart, said the oil from sturgeon was burnt in lamps and used to soften homespun wool in handwoven blankets.
Explorers and fur traders reported in the late 1700s and early 1800s that sturgeon were an important food item for aboriginal people in the region. In fact, lake sturgeon were known to native people as the “buffalo of the water.” As was the case with buffalo, a type of pemmican was made from sturgeon.
Alexander Henry the Younger (1739-1824), a fur trader who founded Fort Pembina at the junction of the Red and Pembina rivers near the U.S.-Canada border, reported in his journal (1799-1814) that sturgeon were plentiful in the Pembina and other rivers in the region and that it was common to catch from 30 to 40 a day.
While sturgeon prefer to spawn in fast-flowing water, they are more commonly found in murky water where they bottom feed. The sturgeon’s mouth (no teeth) is under its snout-like nose. It uses four barbels or feelers under the snout in front of its sucking mouth to detect the worms, insect larvae, mollusks, crustaceans and small fish that it feeds upon.
Sturgeon have cartilaginous skeletons and thick-set torpedo-like bodies that are noted for having rows of hard, knobby, pointed bucklers running from head to tail. Between the bucklers are five rows of bony, shield-shaped plates that protect the fish from predators.
By 1875, the sturgeon that Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Tache (1823-94) wrote as once being so plentiful in the Red and Assiniboine had practically disappeared. The collapse of the sturgeon fishery had occurred despite an order from the Council of Assiniboine that made it “unlawful to erect weirs or barriers in any part of the Red River or Assiniboine.” The order passed by the council and issued by the HBC governor was not enforced. Records show that no one was ever charged for blocking either river with a weir — it was business as usual.
The commercialization of the sturgeon fishery meant that aboriginals took on the role of employees for major companies, distracting them from traditional aspects of sturgeon fishing. They traded sturgeon and its oil for “flour, bacon, tea, tobacco, twine, clothing, &c.,” wrote fisheries inspector Alex McQueen in 1886.
Briefly, sturgeon fishing did provide a good living for some aboriginal people. They received as much as $1 for a whole fish. In 1902, the First Nations people of Nelson River were paid $5,200 for 5,200 sturgeon.
A Royal Commission report on the state of fishery in Manitoba at the start of the 20th century said the province’s lakes had been overfished, “... and that the sturgeon, the most valuable fish in these waters, is on the point of extinction.”
Commercial sturgeon fishing peaked during the period from 1900 to 1906 with over 600,000 pounds (272,155.4 kilograms) caught each year. By 1910, the catch had tumbled to less than 100,000 pounds (45,359.2 kilograms) and continued to fall.
Today, there is no commercial sturgeon fishery. The fisheries branch of Manitoba Conservation only allows recreational catch-and-release of sturgeon.
But despite their diminished numbers, lake sturgeon are not protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act or Manitoba’s Endangered Species Act.
Hydro development in this province will continue, imperilling sturgeon populations, which is why it’s important to get a grasp on their numbers and the success of reintroduction through research. Since the Crown corporation’s dams are part of the problem, it’s fitting that they intensify their efforts to alleviate the sturgeon dilemma.