For millions of years, the Nechako white sturgeon survived volcanic eruptions, ice ages and climatic upheavals. But the species was not ready for its biggest threat to date – humans.
After the construction of the Kenney Damn in 1952, the adult population of the Nechako white sturgeon dropped from what some scientists believe was a minimum of 5000 fish to less than 600.
At the current rate of population decline, they will be extinct in 25 years unless something is done, according to the Nechako White Sturgeon Conservation Centre (NWSCC), a non-profit organization based in Vanderhoof.
“We just want people to care,” said NWSCC representative Alyssa Ball.
“We want people to come out and maybe even push the government, but you need people to care first,” she said.
While white sturgeon in southern B.C. rivers can grow to a length of six metres and a weight of 1800 pounds, the Nechako white sturgeon is generally smaller, reaching about three metres during a lifetime.
Sturgeon do not begin spawning until they are 20 to 40 years old, and the majority of the Nechako white sturgeon are more than 40 years old. Few young fish indicates that sturgeon are not reproducing successfully or that juveniles are not surviving to adulthood.
“As a result of the Kenney Dam, we had a lot of changes at the bottom of the riverbed – we went from something that was very gravelly, and a great place for young sturgeon to hide, to something that was very sandy, which doesn’t provide a lot of hiding habitat,” explained Ball.
The Kenney Dam was built to create the Nechako reservoir, which supplies downstream hydro-electric turbine to power Alcan (now Rio Tinto Alcan) aluminum smelters. Rio Tinto and NWSCC have been working together to repair some of the damage.
“Back in 2011 we dug a bunch of the sediment out of the river and put in some gravel, about 2100 cubit metres of gravel,” described Ball. “It started as an experiment to see if it would create an artificial spawning bed, but then it became a restoration measure because it actually worked.”
Although all sport fishing for white sturgeon was closed in the Nechako watershed in 2000, Ball said people often catch white sturgeon accidentally.
“Catch and release is not allowed, but it happens,” she said. “So if you catch one by accident, make sure that fish goes back in the water.”
Earlier this year, the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council successfully fought a provincial plan to reduce by half the number of juvenile white sturgeon to be released into the Nechako and destroy the remainder. The NWSCC had raised 12,000 juvenile white sturgeon. After the protest, all 12,000 fish were released as initially intended.