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White sturgeon juveniles released into Arrow Lakes

Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program (FWCP) organized the May 14 event
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Juvenile white sturgeon are released into the Arrow Reservoir at Shelter Bay in May every year as part of the recovery effort for this prehistoric fish, federally listed as a species at risk. The sturgeon are raised in a hatchery near Cranbrook for two years before they are released. (Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program)

by Rachel Lesosky

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice

Community members and students from Nakusp and Revelstoke made up the crowd of almost 100 at the annual juvenile white sturgeon release at Shelter Bay. Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program (FWCP) organized the May 14 event, with support from BC Hydro, the Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC, and Revelstoke Rod and Gun Club.

“It’s always fantastic to be out there, both with the students and the public, because it’s such a different kind of fish,” said Angus Glass, Communications Coordinator with FWCP. “It seems like every year the sun shines on this particular day.”

This year, 75 juvenile white sturgeon were released at Shelter Bay, with 10 more ceremonially released by the Okanagan Nation Alliance in Revelstoke.

“The people that come tend to be fascinated by it,” said Glass.

The slowly-maturing fish are North America’s largest and longest-lived freshwater fish, says FWCP, with some individuals reaching 100 years of age. The ‘living fossils’ have changed very little in the last 175 million years, with armour-like skin, barbels, and five rows of bony plates.

Despite their long history, the prehistoric fish are federally listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). There is estimated to be around 50 wild adult sturgeon in Arrow Lakes Reservoir. In the lower Columbia River below Hugh L. Keenleyside Dam, there are about 1,000.

“Biologists are still doing research to understand why white sturgeon are in decline,” Mary Anne Coules of BC Hydro told the Valley Voice, “but we know that human activities – such as dam construction, pollution, and degradation of habitats – are likely factors.”

In 2000, the Upper Columbia White Sturgeon Recovery Institute (UCWSRI) was formed – a coalition of Canadian and American stakeholders. BC Hydro has been actively involved in the program since 2001.

Through the program, more than 60,000 juvenile sturgeon have been released into the Arrow Lakes since 2007.

Sturgeon are raised in a hatchery near Cranbrook for about two years before being released, said Glass, reaching weights of at least 300 grams to ensure better survival rates.

However, the population in the reservoir is going through recruitment failure; not enough fish are surviving long enough to ensure a new generation of sturgeon keeps on swimming. And in a reservoir as big as Arrow Lakes, it’s tough to recapture individuals for the monitoring programs, to be able to tell if recovery efforts are making a difference.

Coules said BC Hydro is working to improve substrate conditions at spawning sites disrupted by dam construction and river regulations. In April 2023, it completed a substrate restoration project in the spawning area in the tailrace (outlet channel) of Arrow Lakes Generating Station, in collaboration with Columbia Power, Okanagan Nation Alliance, Ktunaxa Nation Council, and Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship. In June and July of that year, four spawning events were detected in the area.

“It will take many years to restore a naturally sustaining sturgeon population,” said Coules. “We will monitor the area carefully this year and beyond to determine how the newly placed substrates are holding up and to document spawning in the area.”

In the meantime, the recovery program will keep releasing sturgeon into the reservoirs and giving the public a chance to get up close and personal with the cretaceous fish.

“It’s really that connection that we’re trying to make with wildlife in our ecosystems,” said Glass. “I certainly believe that if you make that connection then people will foster a greater sense of conservation. That’s one reason why we do it.”