Lake Sturgeon Species At Risk
The Lake Sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens)is a
member of the Sturgeon (Acipenseridae) family. As a group, sturgeons are
considered living fossils, and have changed little from their ancestors of
the Devonian Period. The Lake Sturgeon is the only freshwater species of
sturgeon in Canadian waters and is the largest freshwater fish in Canada.
Across Canada, the Lake Sturgeon has been dramatically
impacted by human activities. Separated into eight units, they have been
assessed at various levels of risk by the Committee on the Status of
Endangered Species in Canada ( COSEWIC) . Each unit is
currently under consideration for listing under the Species at Risk Act.
Population and Habitat Status for Lake Sturgeon in Lake
The Nipissing First Nation (NFN)
Natural Resources Department undertook a multi-year project that was
intended to fill significant information gaps on the status of Lake
Nipissing sturgeon. Historically, Lake Sturgeon dominated the Lake Nipissing
ecosystem, however, decades of overfishing has diminished this once
flourishing species. Presently, the quality and quantity of the remaining
sturgeon species is unknown. In an effort to understand the population
status and habitat needs, in an earlier phase of this project NFN began
compiling Aboriginal traditional knowledge (ATK).
Additionally, NFN used radio-telemetry, juvenile and adult tagging and
habitat mapping to develop a comprehensive and definitive report on the
population and habitat status of Lake Sturgeon in Lake Nipissing. The
ultimate goal of this project was to use the information gained to develop a
conservation plan that will protect and enhance the Lake Nipissing sturgeon
Conservation of Lake Sturgeon and the Woodland Caribou in Kitcisakik,
Winneway and Lac-Simon (2010-2011)-Quebec
The Algonquin communities of Kitcisakik, Lac Simon and
Long Point First Nation joined forces in 2010-2011 for the protection of
species at risk. The protection of the Woodland Caribou herd in southern
Val-d'Or and the protection of Lake Sturgeon in the upper watershed of the
Ottawa River were the focus of their concerns and recovery activities.
Education, information sharing, knowledge acquisition
and data collection were the main drive of the project. PartnershIPS
with Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue and the Ministère des
Ressources Naturelles et de la Faune have enabled the communities to combine
traditional and scientific knowledge.
The visual and interactive communication tools
developed and shared have supported cooperation with the local population,
full process integration and the participation of community members in
The lake sturgeon has been important to
humans for many centuries. The Native Americans relied on them for food,
oil, and leather.
The fish has a shark-like appearance but no teeth, feeding on worms,
leeches, larvae and small fish. It can grow as large as 185 kilograms (400
pounds) to a maximum recorded age of 154 years.
The lake sturgeon were a valuable resource for native Indians and early
European settlers who used the fish as a source of smoked meat and oils.
More recently, people have harvested many of the sturgeon species, including
lake sturgeon, for caviar.
Sturgeon are an ancient fish that date back to the age of the dinosaurs.
They are a cartilaginous (nearly boneless) fish with a sucker-like mouth,
shark-like tail, sensitive barbels (whiskers) under the snout, and bony
scutes (plates) along the sides and top of its body. They are opportunistic
feeders, meaning they feed on almost anything they can find, with a diet
consisting primarily of invertebrates, insect larvae, crayfish, worms and
mollusks. Size, weight and lifespan vary from species to species.
Most sturgeon are amphidronous, meaning they travel up freshwater rivers
briefly to spawn, then return to the saltwater of the lower river and river
estuaries for the remainder of the year. Of the 27 living species found
worldwide the lake sturgeon is one of only a few that spends its entire life
in fresh water.
Lake sturgeon are long-lived and can obtain weights over 100 pounds.
Specimens up to 150 years in age and weighing more than 200 pounds have been
documented. However, in their remaining range, most males live about 55
years and females about 80 years. Despite their long lives, sturgeon have
very low reproduction potential. Most females spawn for the first time
between 14-23 years of age, and then only every 7-9 years afterwards
The sturgeon is known as the king of fishes. A primitive fish that has
probably existed on the earth since around the time the dinosaurs
disappeared, the sturgeon comes in a variety of sizes, but can reach
twelve-foot lengths and at least 300-pound weights.
Sturgeons were considered the royalty of fishes among the
Native people who lived in the Great Lakes area. In the Ojibwa nation there
is a Sturgeon clan that is one of the teaching clans. To the Ojibwa people
the sturgeon represents depth and strength.
Native Americans thought the sturgeons were a delicacy because they had
extremely meaty flesh. Instead of eating the meat immediately, they would
dry it out and cook or preserve it through a smoking process.
Several species of sturgeon are considered threatened with extinction as a
result of over-fishing, poaching, water pollution, damming and destruction
of natural watercourses and habitats.
There are 25 species of sturgeons and all are among the most endangered
fishes in the world. Although records suggest that sturgeon have been
important to humans for 1000’s of years.
Historically Sturgeon had many uses by First Nations peoples. Some First
Nation groups called them the Buffalo of the Water. Over 100 uses of
sturgeon have been identified. Such as:
flesh for food,
oil for medicinal
bones for needles,
spears and arrow heads,
stomach linings for drum
“isinglass” from the swim
bladders for making glue and paint for teepees.
Sturgeon harvesting activities also created a valuable cultural meeting
place as many different first nations congregated in the spring at sturgeon
spawning sites to share in the harvest. Some traditional sturgeon spawning
sites have been used by first nations for over 3000 years.
Domestic fishing for food by First Nations peoples continues today. These
rights are protected
Early settlers considered sturgeon a nuisance fish when caught in their nets
set for more desirable fish like walleye and whitefish. The sturgeon were
discarded, or sometimes fed to pigs or used as fertilizer. Because they were
rich in oil, discarded sturgeon were stacked on shore like cordwood and
burned to fuel steamboats.
Early settlers also used the sturgeon for such
With the onset of the caviar fishery attitudes towards the sturgeon changed.
Sturgeon became the most valuable commercial freshwater fish in North
History of human use:
Lake sturgeon have been harvested by humans in the Moose River Basin for
thousands of years. Lake sturgeon had both cultural and subsistence
importance to Aboriginal peoples. All parts of the fish were used: the meat
for food; the skin as a container to store oil; the isinglass which lines
the swim bladder as a paint stabilizer; and the pointed bones along the back
as arrow heads. Today, lake sturgeon remain culturally significant and
continue to be a valued food source to Aboriginal people.
Initially, early settlers did not value lake sturgeon but
soon learned about its various uses. Anglers and commercial fishers targeted
lake sturgeon mainly for its popular smoked flesh. The oil was used in paint
manufacturing and the isinglass from its swim bladder as a clarifying agent
in beer and wine. Leather products were made from its skin and the eggs were
used for caviar. By the early 1900s, such uses of lake sturgeon led to large
increases in its harvest.
Historical harvest records are incomplete. From the limited data available,
it’s clear annual harvests exceeded a river’s production of fish in some
years (Figure 3). This means more fish were taken from a population than the
population was able to produce.
the lake sturgeon that live in at least 128 lakes and reservoirs and 101
rivers across Ontario (as well as sturgeon in parts of Quebec and Manitoba)
represent “the last, good remaining stock of pristine sturgeon anywhere in
the world.” They are, in other words, possibly the final hope for one of the
oldest and most beleaguered groups of animals on the planet.
If lake sturgeon are a living link to our primeval past, they certainly look
the part. Lead grey or deep, primordial brown, adult sturgeon appear to
belong to another time. Their skin is without scales and leathery, and their
fins set back toward their sickle-like tail. Mature sturgeon are huge,
frequently a metre or more long. Some are giants, reaching a length of four
and a half metres and weighing up to 185 kilograms (the weight of a small
piano). Despite their size, lake sturgeon inhabit the relative shallows
(between five and 10 metres deep) where they patiently scour the bottom,
using four sensory barbels hanging near their noses to locate insect larvae,
snails, crayfish, clams and sometimes small fish. Like sharks and other
ancient fish, sturgeon have a skeleton of cartilage instead of bone and move
with an almost fluid gracefulness. Also like sharks, these prehistoric fish
have a long snout, and their eyes are eerily black.
“The first European settlers hated them,” says John
Casselman, an adjunct professor at Queen’s University and a former senior
scientist at MNR’s Glenora Fisheries Station near Picton. Before the
mid-19th century, vast numbers of sturgeon swam in the clear water of the
Great Lakes and its undammed tributaries, and were despised for fouling nets
and gear set for trout and other, more useful species. (The settlers’ view
of sturgeon was in sharp contrast to the centuries-old beliefs of many
Ontario First Nations people, who revered it as a source of food, oil and
leather, and celebrated it in rituals and legends.) Fishermen stacked
“nuisance” sturgeon onshore by the thousands and left them to dry, later to
be used as furnace fuel for steamships.
In the 1860s, that negative attitude changed. Canneries appeared in the
United States that could process sturgeon meat for markets elsewhere, and
caviar became a sought-after delicacy. A huge commercial sturgeon fishery
boomed throughout the Great Lakes, as well as in other large Ontario waters
such as lakes Nipissing, Nipigon and Simcoe, Lake of the Woods and the
Ottawa River. More than seven million kilograms of sturgeon were harvested
in Ontario at the peak of the fishery between 1885 and 1889. Then, with
spectacular suddenness, stocks collapsed. In the period from 1905 to 1909,
the catch fell to less than one-tenth of what it had been 20 years earlier.
The fish live up to 150 years, and females can take 33 years to become
sexually mature. Even then, they spawn only every four to nine years. (Males
mature somewhat earlier and spawn about twice as frequently.) As well, the
potential mothers remain in spawning condition for only a short time, and
they reabsorb their eggs if no suitable sites on which to deposit them are
While dams have been clearly linked in the past to
reductions in sturgeon populations, including the collapse of sturgeon
stocks in Lake St. Francis (which has dams at both ends) and declines on
parts of the heavily developed Ottawa River, they’re not the only pressures
on lake sturgeon. Climate change may warm some waters above the cool
temperatures spawn need to hatch, and water pollution threatens to poison
the eggs. Invasive sea lamprey prey on adult sturgeon, but efforts to
control the lamprey are proving to be hazardous to sturgeon as well: the
chemical used to kill young lamprey in streams can also affect the
struggling fry of sturgeon. While invading mussels and gobies are a source
of food for sturgeon, gobies also eat sturgeon eggs and mussels cover and
spoil the pebbly spawn beds.
Nevertheless, dams are of most concern, if only because of the very real
potential that the problem is about to get much worse.
Although sturgeon have difficulty climbing dam “fish ladders,” such as those
used in the United States and Quebec to help eels, other possible mitigation
methods include managing downstream, sturgeon-friendly water levels, flows
and habitat; physically trapping and transporting the fish past the
barriers; or simply choosing to locate projects on other rivers, where their
effects will be less disruptive to sturgeon.