Recovery plan for sturgeon underway

The Winnipeg River, north of Kenora, is one of countless bodies of water in Sunset Country that are loaded with a variety of fish species, including one that is found only in a few of the bigger systems: the lake sturgeon.
The Winnipeg River Lake Sturgeon Assessment program was started in 2007, and its purpose is to assess the status of Winnipeg River sturgeon from the Norman Dam at Kenora to the Manitoba border.
It is a co-operative effort between project partners Ochiichagwe’babigo’ining Ojibway Nation, Wabaseemong Independent Nations, the Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment Canada, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Ontario Power Generation.
Sturgeon populations on many fisheries have suffered through the years, in nearly all cases because of human activities like commercial fishing, the construction of dams which has resulted in habitat loss and altered water flow, and habitat degradation from agricultural practices and poor land uses.
Ryan Haines of Kenora is an independent biologist assisting the Ochiichagwe’babigo’ining Ojibway Nation crew of Guy Henry and Evan Fisher working on the sturgeon project, and he was able to share a significant amount of information with me about this fishery and sturgeon in general.
“The demise of sturgeon in this region was their incredible usefulness,” he said. “Sturgeon provided excellent eating, either smoked or fresh, in addition to their eggs for caviar.
“Isinglass, a gelatin extracted from the swim bladder of sturgeon, was used as a clarifying agent in the production of beer or wine, as cement for pottery, as a setting agent for jams or jellies, and for waterproofing.
“Sturgeon skins were even tanned for leather,” Haines added.
The lake sturgeon is one of Canada’s largest freshwater fish and may live to more than 100 years of age. In fact, the oldest-recorded fish was caught in Lake of the Woods in 1953 and weighed in at 208 pounds.
This fish was born in 1799!
Sturgeon are benthivores, which feed on small invertebrates such as insect larvae, crayfish, snails, clams, and leeches.
For this assessment program, Haines and his fellow workers are setting nets for adult and juvenile sturgeon in both historical sturgeon locations and high-quality sturgeon habitat. Once captured, the fish are measured for length and weight.
A small section of one pectoral fin ray then is removed for aging, and the fish are marked with both internal and external tags for recapture identification before being released.
Haines shared some interesting results on the success of the netting program:
“Following two seasons of netting from the Whitedog dam to the Manitoba border, and one season of netting from the Norman dam to Whitedog dam, there appears to be a large discrepancy with lake sturgeon numbers in different sections of the river.
“During the 2008 netting season, over 150 sturgeon, including15 adult sturgeon and 140 juvenile sturgeon, were caught in the section of the Winnipeg River from the Whitedog dam to the Manitoba border.
“During the same time period, with a similar amount of effort and the same techniques, the two crews netting on the section of the Winnipeg River from the Norman dam to the Whitedog dam caught only one adult sturgeon and no juveniles.”
Both sections of the river again are being tested during the 2009 season. Nets are marked with large, round orange markers and anglers are encouraged to stay clear of any nets the crews have set.
Sturgeon have a long history in Sunset Country and offer some fine angling opportunities in the Rainy River.
Hopefully, this group can help to design and implement a successful recovery plan for sturgeon on the Winnipeg River so we may have healthy populations and quality angling opportunities there someday.

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