Lake sturgeon a species at risk

by Bruce Cherney

It would have seemed ludicrous over 100 years ago to believe that lake sturgeon would ever become a species at risk.

In the late 19th century, sturgeon were being taken from Manitoba’s lakes and rivers in prodigious quantities. At one point, the oil-rich archaic fish was even being used to fuel steamboats as they travelled this province’s waterways.

But what had been seen as an inexhaustible supply decades ago has been brought near the brink of extinction. That’s exactly why the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has recently announced that lake sturgeon has made its newest list as a species at risk. If the recommendation of COSEWIC is accepted, the federal environment minister will place lake sturgeon, Canada’s largest freshwater fish, under the Species At Risk Act which now contains 51 other species.

Overfishing, loss of habitat and the construction of dams, have been the greatest threats to lake sturgeon over the years. They also are blessed, or inflicted depending on one’s perspective, with a gourmand’s delight — caviar. As Caspian Sea sturgeon have become scarce, lake sturgeon in North America are being used to fill the void as a source of caviar, and the only way to harvest sturgeon roe is to kill the female egg-bearing fish.

Sturgeon are a long-lived species, with mature fish attaining ages of over 100 years. The greatest problem is that sturgeon do not reach sexual maturity until at least 20 years and they spawn infrequently; up to five years between spawns.

In this province, northern hydro-electric dams and diversions have had an adverse affect on sturgeon habitat, but Manitoba Hydro has taken a positive step by funding various projects to bolster the declining populations, such as the Grand Rapids Hatchery which produces sturgeon fingerlings for re-stocking.

While there remains populations of  lake sturgeon in some of Manitoba’s lakes and streams, its original range has significantly shrunk, especially in Lake Winnipeg where commercial fishermen of yesteryear marvelled at its plentiful numbers.

W.T. Urquart, the federal fisheries inspector in Manitoba, reported to Sir Charles Tupper, the minister of marine and fisheries, on January 11, 1872, that sturgeon were “found in great abundance and of large size in almost all the lakes and rivers of the North-west (including Lake Winnipeg) ... More especially in the waters lying east of the Grand Rapids on the Saskatchewan is the fish found in the greatest numbers. 

“They have been taken both in the Red River and the Assiniboine near Fort Garry, weighing from 60 to 80 pounds (27.2 to 36.3 kilograms) each, and a sturgeon weighing 40 pounds (18.1 kilograms) is not at all uncommon.

Urquart said a considerable quantity of sturgeon oil was made in Manitoba. “It is not exported, but used as a machine oil and found to answer the purpose remarkably well.”

He said that a 50-pound (22.7-kilogram) fish could yield a gallon of oil.

In 1884, Alex McQueen, who had taken over local inspection duties from Urquart, said the oil from sturgeon was burnt in lamps and used to soften homespun wool in handwoven blankets.

Explorers and fur traders reported in the late 1700s and early 1800s that sturgeon were an important food item for aboriginal people in the region.

University of Manitoba zoology professor Terry Dick, who is a research chair with the natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), said in a university news release that local First Nations communities have historically obtained as much as 50 per cent of their protein from lake sturgeon, “particularly in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario.”

In fact, lake sturgeon were known to native people as the “buffalo of the water.” As was the case with buffalo, a type of pemmican was made from sturgeon.

Fish were also preserved by drying on racks, cured by the sun or smoked. Cooking methods included boiling the fish in clay pots, woven spruce kettles or pouches made from animal stomachs.

Dick has also used native traditional knowledge to prepare a status report on lake sturgeon that will be used to implement a recovery plan for the fish.


“I’ve been working with the Sagkeeng First Nation on a detailed study of traditional knowledge that would be critical for a lake sturgeon recovery plan,” he said in the U of M release. “This report included the Anishinabe (means ‘first men’ in Ojibwe) names of all the traditionally used sites along the Winnipeg River, as well as stories related to the history of these sites, and all of this information relating to sturgeon biology is still in the community, from a First Nations perspective.”

Chistopher Hannibal-Paci, of the natural Resources Institute at the University of Manitoba, wrote in a paper on lake sturgeon in Lake Winnipeg that elder aboriginal male fishermen passed on sturgeon knowledge to the younger generation.

“Cree and Ojibwe knowledge of sturgeon focused on spawning indicators and sites, sturgeon behaviour (such as feeding), and uses for all parts of the fish,” he wrote in Lake Sturgeon: The Historical Geography of Lake Winnipeg Fishery Commons. “Families would participate in sturgeon fishing and processing.”

While sturgeon were an important food item for aboriginals, it wasn’t until the 1850s that they took on more value as a trade item — “... flesh, eggs and swim bladders could be traded for goods while byproducts of trade, such as the head and undersized fish, could meet domestic needs,” he added.

Alexander Henry the Younger (1739-1824), a fur trader who founded Fort Pembina at the junction of the Red and Pembina rivers near the U.S.-Canada border, reported in his journal (1799-1814) that sturgeon were plentiful in the Pembina and other rivers in the region and that it was common to catch from 30 to 40 a day.

David Thompson (1770-1857), an explorer and mapmaker, said in his narrative of his journeys in the North-west (1784-1812) that native fishermen speared sturgeon from canoes.

“Those in my canoe, speared three sturgeon, each weighing about sixty pounds (27.2 kilograms). For a clear water (Red) Lake they were very good; for the sturgeon may be called the Water Hog ... By receiving the turbid waters of the Saskatchewan (River) it has remarkably fine sturgeon, a fish that requires such water to be in perfection.”

While sturgeon prefer to spawn in fast-flowing water, they are more commonly found in murky water where they bottom feed. The sturgeon’s mouth is under its snout-like nose. It uses four barbels or feelers under the snout in front of its sucking mouth to detect the worms, insect larvae, mollusks, crustaceans and small fish that it feeds upon.

Sturgeon have cartilaginous skeletons  and thick-set torpedo-like bodies that are noted for having rows of hard, knobby pointed bucklers running from head to tail. Between the bucklers are five rows of bony, shield-shaped plates that protect the fish from predators.

Using harpoons to land sturgeon has been determined by artifacts found at the Nelson River in Manitoba to be at least 4,000 years old. Clubs and harpoons appear to have been the dominate method of sturgeon fishing in  the Lake Winnipeg system.

Other methods used by aboriginals included the construction of weirs and dams to block rivers and streams as well as nets used from canoes.

A 1900 photo taken at the Roseau River has the caption “Indian fish trap ... hundreds of Indians from as far west of Bismarck congregated every spring to catch and smoke jacks (pike), sturgeon and catfish.”

Culturally, such gatherings were important to native people, providing an opportunity to meet with extended families and friends and to trade, as well as perform religious celebrations.

When fishing at Cumberland Lake — the fur trading post of Cumberland House was  established on Pine Island on the lake which is a part of the Saskatchewan River system and 90 kilometres from The Pas — Thompson wrote that his party set three nets of 50 fathoms (80.5 metres) in length and one fathom (1.6 metres) deep, catching sturgeon that were from 15 to 50 pounds (6.8 to 22.7 kilograms).

“The oil collected was sufficient for two lamps at night the year round,” he said.

Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Tache (1823-94) of St. Boniface described plentiful sturgeon in Manitoba: “This large fish delights in a part of this territory, it willing frequents Lake Winnipeg, and nearly all the important rivers flowing into and out of it ... In our great central basin they are found in abundance. There are very fine sturgeon in Lake Winnipeg; I have seen them seven feet long (2.13 metres) and one hundred and fifty pounds (68 kilograms) in weight. The fish is excellent to eat; it furnishes a great deal of oil, and its air bladder, simply dried, supplies the very useful isinglass of commerce.”

Isinglass is a form of natural gelatin prepared from sturgeon bladders and used in preparing desserts and confections and clarifying beer and wine.

Frank Tough wrote in a 1984 paper on the native fishery and its demise in northern Manitoba that the Hudson’s Bay Company traded 52,134 pounds (23,647.6 kilograms) of isinglass annually from 1825 to 1891. This required the landing of 226,429 pounds (102,706 kilograms) of sturgeon.

“The fishery in Playgreen Lake (connected to Lake Winnipeg by the Nelson River system) forms one of the principal sources ... (of) food of the Fort (Norway House),” wrote fur trader Joseph James Hargrave (1841-91) in his book  Red River. “Sturgeon are caught in great abundance and of excellent quality throughout the summer. A small boat which pays its regular visits to the fishing grounds a few miles from the Fort is called the ‘Sturgeon Boat.’”

By 1875, the sturgeon that Tache wrote as being so plentiful in the Red and Assiniboine had practically disappeared. The collapse of the sturgeon fishery had occurred despite an order from the Council of Assiniboine that made it “unlawful to erect weirs or barriers in any part of the Red River or Assiniboine.” The order passed by the council and issued by the HBC governor was not enforced. Records show that no one was ever charged for blocking either river with a weir — it was business as usual.

The commercialization of the sturgeon fishery meant that aboriginals took on the role of employees for major companies, distracting them from traditional aspects of sturgeon fishing.

They traded sturgeon and its oil for “flour, bacon, tea, tobacco, twine, clothing, &c.,” wrote fisheries inspector Alex McQueen in 1886.

Briefly, sturgeon fishing did provide a good living for some aboriginal people. They received as much as $1 for a whole fish. In 1902, the First Nations people of Nelson River were paid $5,200 for 5,200 sturgeon.

Tupper reported that the price of sturgeon and its products such as caviar doubled and then tripled in value. In Winnipeg stores, sturgeon meat  was sold for 10 cents a pound.

Despite their commercial value, aboriginal people at Berens River on the east-side of Lake Winnipeg began to resent the encroachment of white fishermen, “who if allowed to continue the destruction of whitefish and sturgeon at the present rate, will eventually exhaust the supply and deprive them of their subsistence,” announced the local Indian Agent in 1884.

In 1890, Samuel Wilmot of the federal fisheries department, toured Lake Winnipeg to investigate native concerns. He came to agree that commercial fishing practices were the cause of the decline and recommended closing off Sturgeon Bay, where the Dauphin River enters the lake, to commercial fishing.

Some of Wilmot’s recommendations were implemented such as a commercial and domestic licensing system and commercial fishers were restricted in where they could operate.

Whatever the regulations, the total commercialization of the fishery did not stop. In 1896, fish inspector R. LaTouche Tupper reported to Ottawa that 10 commercial licences had been issued for Lake Winnipeg, primarily to large American-based companies which had little interest in preserving the fishery.

“Clearly, the lack of fisheries regulations in Manitoba before 1880 allowed unprecedented changes in the fishery, i.e. failure of sturgeon spawning up the Red River,” wrote Hannibal-Paci. “It was 1891 before a proper fisheries organization was established to enforce regulations, and by 1892 doubts about the viability of sturgeon was extended to the Lake Winnipeg fishery.”

A Royal Commission report on  the state of fishery in Manitoba at the start of the 20th century said the province’s lakes had been overfished, “... and that the sturgeon, the most valuable fish in these waters, is on the point of extinction.”

Commercial sturgeon fishing peaked during the period from 1900 to 1906 with over 600,000 pounds (272.155.4 kilograms) caught each year. By 1910, the catch had tumbled to less than 100,000 pounds (45,359.2 kilograms) and continued to fall.

Today, there is no commercial sturgeon fishery. The fisheries branch of Manitoba Conservation only allows recreational catch-and-release of sturgeon.