Malaspina's White Sturgeon could spawn white gold for local industry

October 13, 1999 - 5:00pm

White sturgeon in captivity at Malaspina University-College could spawn a profitable future for the fisheries and aquaculture industry of B.C.

"As far as we know, the only cultured white sturgeon females with eggs in Canada are here at Malaspina," says Bill Bennett, Research Associate in the University-College's Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture. "These fish will be the basis for sturgeon culture in B.C. They will supply the brood stock for future production."

Two companies - Target Marine on the Sechelt Peninsula and M & E Enterprises in Port Hardy - recently acquired provincial licences to culture sturgeon using eggs from Malaspina's fish. "We're simply waiting for our sturgeon to spawn," says Bennett, which could happen anytime within the next year or two.

The mighty white sturgeon, the largest fish in B.C. lakes and rivers, has not survived the advent of western civilization very well. Once common in local waters, the white sturgeon, which can grow up to 1,500 pounds in weight, is now classed as "vulnerable." However, aquaculture scientists and researchers like Bennett are trying to help the sturgeon make a comeback.

The future of white sturgeon in the fisheries and aquaculture industry will be discussed during a national four-day conference, Aquaculture Canada '99, in Victoria later this month. Bennett and Dr. E.D. Lane, a retired faculty member from the Department of Fisheries and

Aquaculture at Malaspina who is known as the "sturgeon general" are co-chairing a special session on white sturgeon - "Sturgeon, Conservation and Culture, Collaboration for the Future" - at Aquaculture Canada '99.

"Sturgeon may well be the future in fisheries and aquaculture," says Bennett. "In B.C. we're always looking for new species. Sturgeon are relatively easy to grow, they taste good and you can sell more than one product - meat and eggs." Another advantage is that sturgeon can be farmed in land based systems, making it easier to control water quality and effluent.

"Anyone who doubts the potential profitability of sturgeon in B.C. needs simply to look south of the border," adds Bennett. Sturgeon in California is a strong industry developed over the past 20 years between fisheries conservationists and those interested fish culture.

Two speakers at the conference - Joel Van Eenennaam of the University of California and Ken Beer of the Fishery Inc. - are "pioneers in white sturgeon culture in the U.S.," says Bennett, "and are willing to share their experience and knowledge about what they think is going to happen in the future with white sturgeon."

Don Pederson from the B.C. Ministry of Fisheries is also slated to speak about a new conservation hatchery in the west Kootenays for white sturgeon.

"The hatchery is an important step for B.C.," says Bennett. "It's a fail-safe hatchery in that the wild sturgeon population has dropped low enough that the province has deemed this hatchery as important, necessary and crucial to the survival of white sturgeon in the Columbia and Fraser Rivers."

This special session on sturgeon should result in "significant new knowledge acquired by Canadian conservationists and culturists to enable them to work together to revive the sturgeon species," says Bennett.

The sturgeon session emphasizes the Aquaculture Canada '99 conference theme 'Aquaculture, A Future in Fisheries' perfectly, adds Bennett. "We're trying to bring the wild and cultured fisheries together in a more collaborative approach," says Bennett. "In the past, the two groups have had a very confrontational relationship. We're trying to change that."

Bennett says scientists don't know a lot about the sturgeon's biology in the wild in B.C. waters.

"In the U.S. a lot of time and money is spent determining fish biology - where the sturgeon are, where they came from, how old they are, etc.," says Bennett. "In B.C., we're still a little bit in the dark. We don't know how many of the big fish exist, where they spawn, or how they cope with the increasing pressures placed upon them by sports and commercial fishermen and from pollution," says Bennett.

Sturgeon are important because they were once a main food source for First Nations people, adds Bennett. "They were also once declared as 'royal fish' by Queen Elizabeth II. You needed written permission to catch them because of the caviar," says Bennett.

The white sturgeon is one of 23 sturgeon species living in fresh and coastal waters in the northern hemisphere, five of which are found in Canada. The sturgeon is a prehistoric fish, virtually unchanged from fossils of its ancestors dating back 215 million years.

Sturgeon live long and grow to incredibly large sizes - the largest ever caught was 750 kilograms or 1,500 pounds. "We estimate they can live over 100 years. Malaspina's sturgeon - which came from the Fraser River - are between 20 and 40 years old.

The Malaspina team of scientists and researchers has been working for the last 12 years on the white sturgeon. This involves catching and tagging fish in the Fraser River, examining some fish for aging and reproductive history, and catching sample fish for study. It is hoped that this work will culminate in the first captive spawning of white sturgeon eggs in B.C. A successful spawning in B.C. could then begin an enhancement program for sturgeon here, potentially at least as valuable as salmon, trout and shellfish have been.

For further information, please contact Jane Atcheson-Groves at 741-2687.

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