Figure this one out, it’s a curious story (if you’re into fish stories… I know the Cohen Commission into Fraser sockeye is into this sort of stuff):
I’m pretty new to this sturgeon issue; however, it still leaves me shaking me head at where priorities and planning within federal government institutions come from.
White Sturgeon in the Upper Fraser River and Nechako River were listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2003 along with some populations in the Columbia River — they were listed as a species of concern as early as 1990. The SARA listing means there are various prohibitions and other fuss over these ancient fish (fossil records suggest these fish — that can live to be over a hundred years old and grow to great lengths — have been around 175 million years or so).
There are things like protecting critical habitat (remember this as we move forward on this post), developing recovery plans, and ensuring that these species are not subject to ‘death, harm, harassment, capture, or possession.’
The population of upper Fraser white sturgeon is apparently distinct from the Nechako River sturgeon. The last population estimates done on these fish was in the late 1990s (as far as I can tell from poking around).
At that time, sturgeon were “managed” by the Province as they are a freshwater species. Once they became listed under SARA, they came under the domain of the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. (please… you cynics out there, I heard the groan, just hear this piece of the story out).
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“By catch of White Sturgeon: Discussion of Potential Mitigation Options” was the name of the recent PowerPoint presentation by Department of Fisheries & Oceans in Prince George.
This sounds serious. When I hear the term “by catch” I have visions of huge trawlers on the open ocean dumping 70% of their catch overboard dead because they’re simply looking for some specific fish. (for example, the Bering Sea pollock fishery that catches impressive amounts of Yukon River salmon and simply dumps them overboard as “useless by-catch”).
However, by-catch can also mean so much less than that.
What is the target of this DFO “by-catch reduction” on endangered upper Fraser and Nechako white sturgeon?
Well… it is the First Nation food, social, and ceremonial fisheries for salmon.
Apparently, during the spring and summer months when First Nations in the upper Fraser and Nechako areas are salmon fishing (something happening less and less frequently due to salmon population declines across the board in the upper Fraser areas), the occasional juvenile sturgeon or older fish might get tangled in nets.
First Nation folks who have had this happen explain that they remove the sturgeon and release them back to the river.
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So let’s take a little sidebar trip here…
In the meeting I attended, an expert from the Province explained the main issue for declining sturgeon populations around the world… and this isn’t a shocker… habitat loss and impacts.
And pretty much any quick search on the Internet will confirm the long list of well-known impacts: dams, pollution, loss of critical habitat, warming waters, disease and pathogens and so on. Dams are known to be a very serious issue — whether it’s in the upper Colombia River or in the Nechako River or other parts of the world where sturgeon live.
This is explained quite clearly on DFO’s webpage and fancy brochure on sturgeon:
Over the past century, white sturgeon populations have been adversely affected by over-fishing, construction of hydroelectric dams, diking and drainage projects, dwindling food resources, and declining water quality as human populations and activities intensify
In the early 1990s harvest of white sturgeon in the upper areas of the Fraser watershed (inc. the Nechako) was stopped to try and protect what was considered a dwindling population. There was also an intensive 5-year study launched to attempt population estimates.
The last known estimates appear to be 1999 with an estimate of just under 600 Nechako sturgeon and just under 300 upper Fraser sturgeon. One thing I haven’t found in my relatively quick searches is how this compares to historic populations. All that folks suggest is that there have been dramatic declines.
However, this is not necessarily the point here. It appears quite clear that sturgeon populations aren’t doing very well. One of the main examples cited is that there simply aren’t enough juveniles growing into reproductive adults.Why?
No one can say with any certainty.
Except with maybe the issues on the Nechako River. See, there’s this rather large dam in the upper reaches that was created in the middle of the 1900s, or so. The dam was built by Alcan so that it could reverse water through the mountains back to Kitimat so that it could produce power for the aluminum smelter there. The company is now known as Rio-Tinto Alcan.
This is the same company, based on the northern BC coast (e.g. near the mouth of the Skeena River) that would like to use more Nechako River water, which should be flowing down the Fraser — so that it can produce more power and sell it back to BC Hydro.
Due to the dam, the Nechako River has been completely altered. Flows of the river are controlled by the massive upstream dam, temperatures have changed significantly within the river since it was dammed and so on, and so on.
And, thus, it’s not really rocket science to figure out what has caused an apparent precipitous decline of white sturgeon.
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Back to the by-catch of sturgeon meeting.
We do know (more or less) that habitat is the issue worldwide for sturgeon populations — and yes, fishing does have an impact.
But… what is the impact that we were discussing in this particular meeting?
How many of these endangered sturgeon are being caught in First Nation salmon fisheries?
Well… survey says:… one, two, three!
Anecdotal information, not scientific or actual, but largely rumor, suggests that there might be about three sturgeon killed as by-catch in First Nation salmon fisheries.
On an apparently declining population of approximately 800 or so — is this an impact? Yes.
What might be the best way to deal with this issue?
Well, how about a focused communications campaign?
And then focus other resources on the real impacts — like the massive dam on the upper Nechako that has not posed much good for Nechako fish populations (including salmon).
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No, instead, a meeting is funded (travel costs and hotels and so on) for about 30 individuals from a variety of organizations. About 6 – 8 DFO staff. And meeting agendas that suggest formation of “Working groups” and potentially significant changes to how First Nations fish for salmon, and training funds, and policy development, and, and, and…
For three fish.
One, two, three…
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There are suggestions on the agenda for the meeting that either the group comes up with changes or DFO will “impose” them.
Well, gee, isn’t that nice ‘relationship-building’ language.
And the response from many folks: ummm… ok… so you’re threatening to impose changes on salmon fisheries (based on aboriginal rights and the Constitution) because there is anecdotal information suggesting an impact on three fish. What sort of threats of imposing changes is RioTinto Alcan facing?
DFO: “oh, well we’re in discussions with them about a ‘conservation agreement’ and potentially helping to fund a hatchery.”
participants: “but no ‘imposed’ changes potentially coming for them?”
Yet, we know — worldwide — that the main issue facing sturgeon is habitat.
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If you’d like more perspective on this issue read one of the most popular posts on this site: Cull the endangered Orcas?
The relationship here?
Well… the resident Orca pods in the Salish Sea (Georgian Strait) are also listed under SARA. And their main food source during the spring and summer months?
These orcas will actually knock other salmon out of the way to get to the Chinook.
Some of these Chinook populations, bound for the Fraser, are also in trouble — yet, not listed under SARA. But the orcas are listed — and yet sport fisheries remain open on one of their main food sources. And, it is certainly more than three Chinook being caught in those sport fisheries. (and population estimates on the Orcas is in the low hundreds… highlighting even more the importance of the Chinook as a food source).
Any “imposed” changes being talked about there…?
How about, working groups, and training and funding and all-expenses paid meetings, and so on…?
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This isn’t to question lots of the hard work that many folks are doing on these issues… more simply to ask, what are the priorities here?
And where is the cost-benefit analysis on these sorts of DFO initiatives?
And, more so, why don’t we direct funds and professional staff to the really tough issues, the issues that might mean making changes that have potential significant economic impacts and impacts on rather powerful stakeholders?
Spending $50,000 – $100,000 or more (total estimates on my part) to fund meetings to discuss big changes based on anecdotal evidence of, one, two, three fish mortalities…
When DFO staff repeat time and time again at meetings, that they can’t get the resources — for example — to properly implement the Wild Salmon Policy.
good use of dwindling resources?
Maybe we could recreate those three dead sturgeon out of Alcan’s aluminum foil?
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(Hopefully the Cohen Commission is considering funding priority setting within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans?)