Hanneke Brooymans – The Star Phoenix
EDMONTON — Canada’s largest freshwater fish could soon find itself on the endangered species list.
And in the North and South Saskatchewan River systems, which span the three Prairie provinces and part of Montana, the population of lake sturgeon — which once shared the planet with dinosaurs — has declined as much as 80 per cent, according to the federal government.
Ottawa is therefore considering using legislation to protect the large, bottom-feeding fish. To that end, it recently ran advertisements, soliciting public reaction to the idea.
But getting the sturgeon on the endangered list could be “very challenging,” said Fred Hnytka, a species-at-risk biologist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
For instance, it could be difficult to restrict how many are caught along some northern rivers, where First Nations people have a cultural attachment to the fish, Hnytka said.
Lake sturgeon are found in waterways from Alberta to Quebec. They can live for decades — some up to 100 years.
In Alberta alone, they once swam at 48 sites in the North Saskatchewan River and 30 in the South Saskatchewan River. They are now found at 16 and 12 sites, respectively.
In August, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada recommended listing the sturgeon as endangered, blaming over-fishing and habitat loss from dam construction. Adding to the species’ problems is the late and infrequent spawning of its females.
“The species is just so vulnerable, you need to be extra cautious,” said Joe Nelson, a University of Alberta professor emeritus who wrote Fishes of Alberta. “That’s why I would come down in favour of it being listed.”
Terry Dick, a University of Manitoba zoology professor, said it’s a disgrace the species hasn’t been listed yet.
“It was wiped out in so many areas nearly 100 years ago, and we’re still debating it,” said Dick, who wrote the original proposal to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
Dick said the government shouldn’t be worried about the challenges of dealing with First Nations, and should seek to involve them directly in the recovery plans.