Three years ago was the first time in 20 years a white sturgeon fishery in Lake Roosevelt was open to the public. That year more than 17,000 anglers took to the water to bag a prehistoric fish that can grow to more than 12 feet long and weigh hundreds of pounds.
This year is no different. Starting in June, thousands of anglers descended upon the lake to catch sturgeon. The success of the fishery derives from hatchery programs in Washington state and British Columbia.
Funded largely by Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers, the hatcheries began in the early 2000s, stocking up to 12,000 juvenile sturgeon annually. The hatcheries are managed by the Spokane Tribe of Indians, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation and some Canadian entities.
“The hatchery program has been very successful, much better than we ever expected,” says Jason McLellan, research scientist for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation. “However, certain families of sturgeon are surviving better than others, resulting in disparities among the abundances of family groups.”
The fact that just a handful of sturgeon families survived at a higher rate was a good thing in the short-term, but it’s something scientists are trying to address for the long haul. That’s because the genetic pool of Lake Roosevelt’s sturgeon could become too narrow. In response, hatchery managers opened the Lake Roosevelt sturgeon fishery in 2017.
“Before the fish get old enough to reproduce we need to thin them out, get their numbers down,” said Scott Bettin, a BPA fisheries biologist, in a BPA press release. “Some sturgeon could begin to produce at around 18 years of age, and that’s just about where we are right now. We don’t want the genes of just a few families to dominate the future.”
To ensure more families are represented, the program switched from using a limited number of wild adult broodstock to wild caught eggs and larvae for its source of young fish. The wild eggs and larvae are taken to hatcheries where they are reared for approximately one year and then released back into the river.
In Canada, white sturgeon are listed as endangered under the Canadian Species at Risk Act. But in the U.S., says Bettin, successful hatchery programs and the international Upper Columbia White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative have helped avoid an Endangered Species Act listing for Lake Roosevelt. That has saved BPA ratepayers big dollars while still helping the fish to thrive, says the press release.
“The white sturgeon hatcheries and now fishery is definitely a huge success for us,” says Bettin. “Survival of the hatchery fish has been at the high end of what we expected, and that has resulted in a real win for our fish mitigation program.”
— CBB, May 14, 2019, BIOLOGISTS DETAIL HEALTH OF WHITE STURGEON POPULATIONS IN COLUMBIA/LOWER SNAKE RIVER; A MIXED BAG https://www.cbbulletin.com/biologists-detail-health-of-white-sturgeon-populations-in-columbia-lower-snake-river-a-mixed-bag/
— CBB, Jan. 5, 2018, COUNCIL SYMPOSIUM LOOKS AT WHITE STURGEON SURVIVAL THROUGHOUT COLUMBIA BASIN https://www.cbbulletin.com/council-symposium-looks-at-white-sturgeon-survival-throughout-columbia-basin/
— CBB, Sept. 22, 2017, UPPER COLUMBIA WHITE STURGEON RECOVERY EFFORTS NOW PRODUCING ENOUGH FISH FOR FISHERIES https://www.cbbulletin.com/upper-columbia-white-sturgeon-recovery-efforts-now-producing-enough-fish-for-fisheries/