At first glance they look like miniature tadpoles. Stare a little harder, though, and tiny sturgeon features become apparent. The white sturgeon hatchlings are in the midst of a comeback brought about by the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho.
A nearby hatchery tank swarms with year-old sturgeon, their large bodies and broad pectoral fins narrowing down to high, pointed tails much like fighter jets. The adults are in huge tanks, only a few fish but each seven or eight feet long.
White sturgeon were here when dinosaurs roamed the country, but man has now put this population of sturgeon in danger of extinction. Historically they were a very important food source for people along the Kootenai River, but they were more than just food.
“Sturgeon were looked upon as our grandfathers,” said tribal chairperson Jennifer Porter, sharing a story told to her by a tribal elder. “Sturgeon could live to be over a hundred years old. They knew the river. They knew the land. Our families would ask the sturgeon, our grandfathers, to guide them through. They were the ones who knew how to go up and then back down the river.”
Sturgeon are the largest freshwater fish in North America and can reach weights well over a thousand pounds, and lengths in excess of 12 feet. Human activity over the past 50 years has drastically reduced their number. In 1994 they were listed as an endangered species.
The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho stepped in with a management plan to help recover sturgeon within the Kootenai River. That program continues and is growing stronger, but much is left to be done. A sturgeon hatchery was constructed in 1991 and still supplies thousands of young fish to the river each year. Hatchery manager Chris Lewandowski said that a cyclical maintenance grant from Bureau of Indian Affairs for Native American hatcheries has allowed some recent improvements. This includes a spawning room, new vapor barrier, and waterproof paneling in some of the fish buildings. Improvements are planned during the coming months for additional improvements with funding from the Bonneville Power Administration.
Hatchery workers spend many days through the spring months using rods and reels to catch these huge fish, take them to the hatchery and hold them till the females are ready to spawn. After eggs are collected, the adult fish are then returned to the Kootenai River.
This is the majestic fish’s only shot at reproduction. Construction of Libby Dam in Montana 50 years ago affected spawning habitat and river flows downstream. Little or no natural recruitment to the population has occurred since that time. Essentially the only addition of young fish comes from those released from the hatchery.
“We spawned nine females this year with approximately 225,000 eggs collected from these fish,” Lewandowski said. “We used a total of twelve males in combination with the nine females to make seventeen family groups.”
Some males were used with more than one female to make up these groups. Five groups, 75,000 eggs, were sent to a backup facility in British Columbia.
“This serves as a failsafe to make sure we have survival from at least one facility in a given year,” Lewandowski said, adding that the young fish will also be released throughout the Kootenai River.
The 2013 spawning season met all the established goals. The hatchery is designed to rear 12 sturgeon families comfortably. During the mid-2000s they reared as many as 18 families but found that the increased density in the tanks caused higher mortality rates. The number of families was reduced to 12, and the result is less mortality. In addition, average size at release doubled to the present 5565 grams. Thirty grams is considered minimum for the fish to have a good chance of survival.
Young fish are reared in the hatchery for 16 to 18 months before being released, Lewandowski said. On average about 10,000 fish are released annually. A second hatchery several miles north of the present hatchery is also underway and should be ready in early 2014.
“The new hatchery will give us more rearing space to provide a quality fish while improving genetic diversity by being able to spawn more females,” Lewandowski added.