Behemoth sturgeon struggle to survive

  • Historic picture of sturgeon and fisherman

    regon Historical Society, Wesley Andrews
 

At the turn of the century, horses were sometimes needed to haul 20-foot white sturgeon from Idaho's Snake River. Today, fish behemoths like that are found only in historical photo archives, although nine-foot-long lunkers are known to survive.

The story of the demise of America's largest freshwater fish reads much like that of the Snake River's more celebrated denizens, the chinook and sockeye salmon. Dams, pollution, irrigation withdrawals and heavy harvests have taken a steady toll on the bottom-dwelling sturgeon, which are thought to live as long as a century.

In 1943, the state banned commercial white sturgeon fishing on the Snake River, and since 1970, sturgeon can only be caught on a catch-and-release basis. Last year the state began requiring the use of barbless hooks.

State biologists say water withdrawals for agriculture combined with nutrient-loaded runoff from farms, fish hatcheries and municipalities, continue to have a major impact on sturgeon. Bob Horton, a fish biologist with the Idaho Fish and Game Department, says a combination of such factors turned the Brownlee Reservoir into an oxygen-depleted stew in the summer of 1990, killing at least 30 of the fish.

But dams remain the biggest threat, most fish experts agree. Dams have divided a river population into nine isolated subpopulations and kept the wide-ranging species from its occasional forays into the Pacific Ocean for food.

Only two of the nine sturgeon populations - the one below Hells Canyon Dam and the one between C.J. Strike Dam and Bliss Dam - are healthy and viable, says Tim Cochnauer, an Idaho Fish and Game fish manager for the Clearwater Region. "There certainly are concerns about the other populations. There are red flags that indicate those populations are barely holding their own."

The dams have greatly reduced the amount of spawning habitat for the sturgeon, says Charles Ray, Idaho Rivers United's salmon coordinator. "Over 50 percent of the river is now impounded," he says. "Sturgeon won't spawn successfully in reservoirs, they need a free-flowing river."

By isolating different populations, the dams have also reduced the fish's genetic variability. Cochnauer says, "The only movement that we would expect to occur between populations is downstream movement. That would be during high water times of the year when fish are spilled over the dams."

Upstream movement is nonexistent because of the dams, adds Cochnauer, even though some built around 1950 had fish ladders. "(These ladders) were not constructed to meet the demands of sturgeon," he says. Dams constructed later - Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon - were built without fish ladders, he adds.

The federal relicensing of three of the dams may provide fish advocates with an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past. The Federal Energy Relicensing Commission will consider relicensing Idaho Power's Bliss, Upper Salmon and C.J. Strike dams in 1998, 1999 and 2000, respectively. Conservationists say they will press FERC to force the utility to release more water during the spring spawning season.

In response to the upcoming relicensing, the company has been conducting white sturgeon studies on the middle Snake River since 1991. The studies are looking at the status of sturgeon populations and how the dams are affecting them, says Ken Lepla, an Idaho Power fish biologist. The data collected will remain proprietary information until licenses are secured, he says, although some information is being shared with Idaho Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The state is currently investigating the possibility of using hatchery fish to enhance or supplement Snake River white sturgeon. Since 1989 an experimental program has planted marked juvenile sturgeon on different segments on the Snake River where their growth and survival rates are being monitored.

Both Horton and Cochnauer believe that fishing had an impact on the white sturgeon population before the dams were built. "We believe there was probably some overharvesting of the big fish," Cochnauer said. "There weren't very many (to begin with). They were the ones people liked to catch and they were the ones photographed a lot."

For fishermen like Charles Ray, catching a sturgeon is like traveling back in time. "Every time I hook one I wonder how many times this fish saw the Pacific Ocean, or how many times it migrated in and out of Hells Canyon before the dams were built."

The writer free-lances from Portland, Oregon.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Central Colorado Conservancy, located in Salida, Colorado, is seeking a Conservation Program Manager dedicated to managing the Conservancy's land protection program which includes developing and...
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.