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Reality Check

RC-24: Are Lake Sturgeon Protected in Manitoba?

Date Posted: November 10, 2011

Lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) is the largest freshwater fish in Canada. This slow-growing, spring spawning, bottom feeding fish species may reach lengths of 2.5 metres or more, weigh more than 140 kilograms, and may live to over 100 years old.

Known as the Buffalo of the Water lake sturgeon are an important species for First Nations. Over 100 uses of lake sturgeon have been identified: oil for medicinal purposes; bones for needles, spears and arrow heads; stomach linings for drum coverings; glue and paint for teepees.

Lake Sturgeon once extended from western Alberta to the St. Lawrence drainage in Quebec, and from southern Hudson Bay drainages to the lower Mississippi drainage. Once so plentiful they were used as fuel for steamship freighters on Lake Winnipeg, none of the Lake Sturgeon populations have fully recovered from habitat disruption and over-fishing. There are less than 10,000 lake sturgeon in Manitoba according to the Department of Water Stewardships 2010-11 Annual Report (p. 35, Table FI.4).

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has identified six different populations of Lake Sturgeon within Manitoba. Five of the populations are listed as "endangered", meaning the species is facing imminent extirpation or extinction. The sixth population is listed as "special concern", meaning the species may become threatened or endangered.

Despite the COSEWIC listing Lake Sturgeon are not protected under Canada's Species At Risk Act or Manitoba's Endangered Species Act.

Commercial Lake Sturgeon fisheries became established in the late nineteenth century: peaks in harvest occurred within 5 -10 years of commercial exploitation, followed by a steep decline within the next 15 - 20 year period. In Manitoba decreased catches led to the closure of commercial lake sturgeon fisheries from 1934-36, 1948-52, 1960-74, and from 1995 till present. First Nations subsistence, and recreational catch and release lake sturgeon fishing is still allowed in Manitoba.

Construction of dams for hydroelectric and flood mitigation purposes impacts lake sturgeon populations due to habitat loss and fragmentation, altered flow regimes, and increased mortality from entrainment in turbines.

In 1997 Manitoba Department of Natural Resources (Now Manitoba Conservation) issued a report Sturgeon Management in Manitoba, which outlined long-term objectives, guidelines and principles, while identifying stocking as a management option for lake surgeon populations. Nelson River Sturgeon Co-Management Board was established in 1993, and Saskatchewan River Sturgeon Management Board was established in 1998. Composed of representatives from affected First Nations, Government officials, and crown energy companies, the boards aim to prevent further decline of lake sturgeon populations. In collaboration with the Government of Manitoba these boards have performed annual tagging, annual data collection programs, and annual hatch and release stocking programs.

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