MOSES LAKE - Washington's first effort to recover the largest and oldest freshwater fish in the upper Columbia River will get under way Feb.18, when 2,000 white sturgeon are transported from Canada to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Columbia Basin Fish Hatchery in Moses Lake.
The transplants are part of a joint effort by the two countries to ensure the long-term viability of naturally-reproducing sturgeon populations in the upper Columbia River.
"Hatchery-rearing intervention is necessary to preserve the diversity of the remaining sturgeon population," said John Whalen, WDFW regional fish program policy manager. "Without natural recruitment of young fish into the population, it will collapse."
Biologists estimate the current adult sturgeon population in the U.S. and Canadian portions of the upper Columbia River system at approximately 3,000 to 4,000 fish, Whalen said. Although no historical numbers exist for comparative purposes, biologists know the species is declining because surveys in recent years have found very few sturgeon under 20 years of age.
White sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) can live for more than a century and grow up to 19 feet and 1,800 pounds. With a torpedo-shaped body, large dorsal fin, flat head, bony plates, and whisker-like sensors, the white sturgeon has remained virtually unchanged for 175 million years.
The reasons behind this ancient species' decline - whether the result of poor reproductive success or low survival rates for young fish - are not fully understood, Whalen said. Possible causes may include construction of hydroelectric dams, changes in Columbia River flow patterns, pollution of the river by municipal and industrial users and predation by other fish, he said.
The upper Columbia River watershed above Chief Joseph Dam, including Lake Roosevelt, is closed to all sturgeon fishing to protect current populations.
As part of the Canada-U.S. Upper Columbia White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative, WDFW hatchery staff will transport 2,000 8-month-old sturgeon, each about 3 inches long, from the Kootenay Sturgeon Conservation Hatchery near Cranbrook, B.C., to be reared at the state hatchery in Moses Lake.
When the sturgeon reach about six inches in length and one year in age, they will be released in to the Columbia River near the U.S/Canada border. Each young fish will be implanted with a small "PIT" (passive integrated transponder) tag, which provides information on the background of individual fish for monitoring purposes.
In 2002 and 2003, a combined total of nearly 20,000 juvenile sturgeon were released to the Columbia River north of the Canadian border. In the years ahead, the U.S. and Canada will together each year release up to 12,000 juvenile sturgeon in the U.S. and Canadian portions of the Columbia River.
WDFW's Columbia Basin hatchery has the water-heating capability needed for the warmer water temperatures that sturgeon require. Plans call for similarly equipping WDFW's Colville fish hatchery so that sturgeon can be reared closer to where they are released. The Canada-U.S. recovery team plans a feasibility study to determine the potential for U.S. sturgeon broodstock holding facilities and a rearing hatchery designed for sturgeon aquaculture.
The only other sturgeon hatchery rearing effort in Washington was an experimental project in the mid-Columbia River at Rock Island Reservoir, where 19,500 sturgeon were released last year after funding cuts ended the program. That effort was designed to determine sturgeon-rearing efficiency rather than to directly spur sturgeon recovery.
"White sturgeon in the upper Columbia River have been a part of the river ecosystem for thousands of years," said Whalen. "These fish are an important fixture in regional Native American culture and have garnered popular acclaim with sport fishers. Collectively, we need to work to retain this piece of our heritage."
Besides Canada, WDFW is currently working with the Colville and Spokane tribes and other partners in Washington to increase awareness of the plight of white sturgeon in Lake Roosevelt and the upper Columbia River. Funding support for the project has come from the Bonneville Power Administration's fish and wildlife mitigation program.
Information on the white sturgeon recovery initiative, on-going sturgeon monitoring work and suggestions on what Washington community groups and individuals can do to help can be found at: http://www.uppercolumbiasturgeon.org.