Moving day for VIU’s sturgeon
It’s a warm, sunny day and I’m taking a refreshing swim in Cameron Lake, just outside of Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, when something grazes my leg. It’s smooth but not scaly. Its texture is more like rows of firm, bony plates. I flash back to every horror movie I’ve ever seen that is set at the beach, and remember why I usually avoid swimming in deep water.
It could be a giant eel or just a tree root. Or it could be a mammoth and prehistoric member of the Acipenseridae family. If that’s the case, I can relax. Commonly referred to as sturgeon, this toothless bottom-feeding water vertebrate prefers fish, crustaceans, and mollusks to human flesh.
Students enrolled in the Vancouver Island University (VIU) Fisheries and Aquaculture program willingly hop into the water with the Acipenser transmontanus, a type of giant sturgeon, all the time. The institution maintains brood stock of various ages – adult female fish that are mature enough to produce eggs – at its Nanaimo campus. This February, the six largest residents were moved into holding tanks at the International Centre for Sturgeon Studies (ICSS), a new state-of-the-art facility. The sturgeon weren’t traveling far – just a short distance up the service road from the previous fish tank in a makeshift greenhouse – but the relocation required a coordinated effort from students and staff. At over 90 kilograms and two metres long, and with some of the fish expected to spawn in June 2013, careful handling was required to minimize stress to the sturgeon and the risk of injury to both fish and handlers.
The day was windy and rainy. I huddled under an umbrella in my skirt and leather jacket; the students waiting outside the greenhouse were better prepared. Many wore hip-waders and all were well-layered in waterproof clothing for the predictable west-coast weather. Inside the old, open-sided greenhouse, under the instruction of VIU technicians Dave Switzer and Gord Edmundson, six students along with Switzer entered the tank with a flexible stretcher — a thick black rubber sling with two wooden poles on each side. Holding it slack at the bottom of the tank, the wranglers made multiple attempts before they finally managed to coax Tyra, the largest of VIU’s sturgeon brood stock, into the sling. They raised the poles above the water, and tucked her head into a hood built in to the end.
Holding the rods close together while supporting Tyra as much as possible, her cortege lifted the stretcher up and out of the water, and moved it down to a holding area on the road where the rods, still held close together, were settled on two workhorses. With several students on each side limiting Tyra’s movement for her own safety, Edmundson rapidly set up equipment that would allow her to “breathe” while in transit. A pump, affixed to two tubes and powered by a large battery, pulled water from a cooler on the ground and pushed it into the hooded pouch of the sling, while the other tube pulled water from the pouch area back into the cooler for recirculation. Anesthetic was administered to sedate Tyra. As they waited for the drug to take effect, the students reached into the sling to stroke the giant, pre-Jurassic fish, as one would a cat or a dog. Their affection for her was unexpected and heartwarming.
Once Tyra appeared calm, the sling’s rods were separated and the students began their journey. With three on either side of the sling and Switzer in the lead, the team quickly maneuvered down the access road towards the ICSS building, while another team followed closely behind with the pump and cooler of water. Once inside the Centre, they slowly lowered the fish into her new holding tank, loosened the sling, and allowed her to swim out on her own. An audible sigh of relief escaped from the staff and students as the sturgeon began to move and explore her new home.
VIU has been involved in sturgeon research since the 1980s and is the only academic institution in western Canada to have captive white sturgeon brood stock. Opened in October 2011, the $5.2 million ICSS is a 1,208 square-metre building housing the fish as well as laboratory facilities, with a mission to become a hub of knowledge and research innovation. The world-class facility is equipped to support the work that VIU’s Fisheries and Aquaculture departments are undertaking in the study and support of sustainable aquaculture practices. Of the 28 species of sturgeon worldwide, five are in Canada, including green sturgeon and white sturgeon on the Pacific Coast. VIU’s facility specifically focuses on the conservation and restoration of white sturgeon.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, pollution and loss of habitat, along with overfishing for their caviar and meat, has resulted in all species being considered vulnerable, threatened, or endangered. In BC, white sturgeon live in the Fraser and Columbia river system, with the largest population in the lower Fraser River. Sturgeon enjoy various degrees of protection on the west coast of North America. In BC, caught sturgeon must be released.
Even with protection, more study is needed to ensure that these remarkable creatures can thrive. This summer, from July 21 – 25, 600 delegates from all over the world are expected at the Vancouver Island Convention Centre in Nanaimo for “Sturgeon, Science, and Society – at the Crossroads,” the Seventh International Symposium on Sturgeon. Co-hosted by VIU and the ICSS in partnership with the World Sturgeon Conservation Society, the conference will cover recent sturgeon research, the state of sturgeon populations, sustainable aquaculture, and look at priorities for future studies. Tours of and workshops at VIU’s new facility will also be offered.
In July 2012, a British tourist landed a 500 kilogram, four metre behemoth sturgeon, and another of similar size was hooked by a Kamloops man later in the year. Both fish were photographed before being tagged and released to swim another day, or decade, or even a century. It is reassuring that, despite the challenges facing sturgeon populations, the mammoth fish can still be found roaming the rivers of BC. That’s something to think about as you prepare for a dip in the Fraser River this summer!
• Sturgeon, often called “living fossils,” date back to the Jurassic period, over 200 million years ago.
• They are the largest freshwater fish in the world and live only in the northern hemisphere.
• Almost all of the world’s 28 species or subspecies of sturgeon are endangered, threatened, or near extinction.
• Poaching, pollution, overfishing and loss of habitat threaten their survival worldwide.
• Saving these prehistoric fish is vital because sturgeon are at the top of the aquatic food chain. Healthy wild sturgeon populations are a key indicator of environmentally healthy river ecosystems.
• The largest sturgeon species in the world is the Beluga sturgeon found in the Caspian Sea in Iran. They can grow to 26 feet in length and weigh over 3,000 pounds.
• In BC, white sturgeon live in the Fraser and Columbia river systems, with the largest populations in the lower Fraser River. There have also been sightings in the Somass River in Port Alberni, the Nanaimo River and other coastal rivers.
• White sturgeon can grow to over five-and-a-half metres and weigh over
3,500700 kilograms. However, it is widely believed that the very large (450 kilograms-and-over specimens) have been largely fished out.
• In BC, white sturgeon provide a catch-and-release sport fishery worth millions of dollars annually in the lower Fraser River.
• BC white sturgeon are being considered for endangered species status under the federal government’s Species at Risk Act.
• Sturgeon have five rows of bony plates called “scutes” running down their body, and four “barbells” or whiskers hanging in front of their mouth.
• Sturgeon do not have any teeth, and feed mostly on fish, dead or alive.
• Sturgeon eggs, known as true caviar, are a gourmet delicacy. The most expensive caviar comes from the Beluga sturgeon. The caviar industry worldwide generates some $100-million in annual sales.
• Sturgeon fillets are also widely prized.
• California has developed a multi-million dollar commercial sturgeon farming industry for both meat and caviar, due largely to the efforts of researchers at the University of California, Davis.
• In the United Kingdom, sturgeon are known as the “Royal Fish.” According to medieval law, anyone who catches a sturgeon must, even now, present it to the Queen.
Note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the weight of the largest sturgeon.