« Return to this article

Know the West

New facts about old fish

  They have weathered volcanic eruptions and landslides, seen woolly mammoths come and go and outlived the dinosaurs. Now the Pacific Northwest's white sturgeon are enduring the scrutiny of scientists who want to understand more about North America's largest fish.

The scientists working for Washington and Oregon have been tagging white sturgeon in the Columbia River as part of a $2 million-a-year study financed by the Bonneville Power Administration. Researchers have been asked to learn how hydroelectric systems can be improved to allow for healthier sturgeon populations.

So far, says team member Mike Parsley, "we have dispelled all the myths." One myth was that the fish, which can live for 100 years, spawn in deep, slow pools. Scientists now agree that sturgeon need rapids for successful spawning runs.

Below the Bonneville Dam, where rapids create ideal fast-water spawning conditions, the Columbia hosts the world's greatest sturgeon fishery, where over 1 million sturgeon are believed to thrive. But above the dam, where the rapids give way to reservoirs and pools, spawning conditions are limited. "The dams essentially trap the sturgeon in reservoirs," said John DeVore of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

DeVore hopes the study, expected to continue until 2001, will lead to the creation of fish-locks, since at 1,500-pound maximum weight, sturgeon are too big to leap up fish ladders. DeVore says the locks would help spawning sturgeon navigate around Bonneville Dam and lead to a more dispersed sturgeon population.

*Jamie Murray