Photo by Linda HeronPhoto Credit

Surge in Sturgeon – Great work Larry!!

By Benjamin Aubé

TIMMINS – Call it the Timmins version of Jurassic Park.

An ancient creature that once lived alongside the dinosaurs is slowly returning to the Mattagami River, an area where it once thrived.

A century ago, when settlers first set up shop in what became the Porcupine mining camp, lake sturgeon measuring up to six feet and living over 100 years were not uncommon in the area.

But due to increased industrial activity, overfishing and a general lack of knowledge on the subject, the once-thriving local population of the fish nearly disappeared.

Recently, lake sturgeon in the entire southern Hudson Bay drainage basin have been designated as a species of “special concern.”

In 2002, various local community and conservation groups concerned about the giant fish’s endangered status and apparent disappearance from the region put their minds together and started the Mattagami Sturgeon Restoration Project.

That year, the Ministry of Natural Resources, along with volunteers from the Timmins Fur Council and Club Navigateur La Ronde, strategically released 50 adult lake sturgeon above and below Sandy Falls Dam.

Ontario Power Generation, Lake Shore Gold and Xstrata Copper Kidd Operations were also involved in the project from Day 1.

Many of the giant fish were tagged and closely monitored over the next few years.

Now, a decade later, there are signs the prehistoric fish is making a wild comeback in parts of the Mattagami River.

Even scientists working on the project are amazed by its success so far. Over the past decade of work, three separate lake sturgeon spawning events have been recorded in the area, an almost unprecedented display of population health.

“Normally, sturgeon might spawn about every five to nine years, and every three years here it seems we’ve had a spawning event,” said MNR district biologist Derrick Romain, who’s been working on the project since it began. “So it’s working and that’s what this project is all about. We want to know why this is working so we can use this to restore other systems that don’t have sturgeon anymore.”

The lake sturgeon compensates for its massive adult size by growing very slowly. In fact, they usually reach sexual maturity sometime between 15 and 25 years old.

The oldest lake sturgeon ever recorded in the province was caught in Lake of the Woods, on the Ontario-Manitoba border, in 1953. That fish was 154 years old.

“Once you start losing a population of lake sturgeon, they go fast,“ explained Romain. “With all that has happened in this area in the past 100 years, through fragmentation of dams, pollution, even the log drives that happened in this area, that could have contributed to the reduction and near-loss of the sturgeons between Wawaitin Dam and Lower Sturgeon Falls.”

Anyone who has caught a lake sturgeon on a fishing excursion will tell you what a unique experience it can be. Local anglers might even be surprised to know that if they’re lucky, they can catch on of these living fossils right off the Mattagami River boat launch near downtown Timmins.

“They’re prehistoric. They’ve been around since the time of the dinosaurs,” said Romain. “They’re kind of a neat fish. They’re a bottom-feeder, they’ll feed on mollusks, crayfish, worms and even other small fish that live on the bottom.

“They look like a shark, they have cartilage just like a shark. They even have armour. They have five rows of scutes, they call them, and when (the sturgeon) are small, the scutes are very sharp. When the fish get older, the scutes kind of rub off because they don’t need that protection from predators like a pike who might want to eat them.”

On Wednesday, Xstrata Copper Kidd Operations announced it was donating an extra $21,000 to the project, part of a $70,000 commitment to local sustainable environment and biodiversity projects.

David Yaschyshyn, Kidd Operations’ environmental superintendent, explained that, “Around 2006, Xstrata started doing biodiversity studies around our facilities. We were interested to know what species lived around the Kidd mine site. By going through that exercise, we determined that the sturgeon was a species at risk that lived nearby our operations.

“We started looking for opportunities about how we might lend a helping hand to that species,” said Yaschyshyn. “Xstrata is pleased to announce a contribution of $21,000 to see that this restoration project continues into 2014.”

Michael Doody, chairman of the Wintergreen Fund for local conservation projects, called Xstrata’s participation in the Sturgeon Rehabilitation Project “really a great example of what can be accomplished locally when it comes to managing our precious natural resources.”

The next part of the study is analyzing the cause of the success of the Mattagami River sturgeon project. It’s still too early to determine exactly how many fish are currently in the river between Wawaitin and Sturgeon Falls. But as the progeny of the 50 adults released in 2002 mature, clearer data should start coming out in the next few years.

The project’s origins go back to the mid 1990s when the Club Navigateur, “a small group of guys out of La Ronde cultural centre,” joined forces with local high schools and the MNR to start planning out-of-town field trips to witness rarely seen sturgeon spawning events in the spring.

Larry Robichaud was among the Club Navigateur members who would lead students from École secondaire catholique Thériault to Groundhog Lake, almost 100 kilometres outside of Timmins.

It was then that local conservationists started to wonder why the same results couldn’t be produced upstream. After all, not that long ago, the Mattagami River in Timmins was a natural habitat where lake sturgeon thrived.

“I guess this restoration kind of evolved from these years of going to the river and watching the sturgeons spawn,” said Robichaud. “It’s been overwhelming over the years how important it was to be with the students and sharing with them what nature has to show us.

“Now, we are north of the Groundhog River, they are reproducing, we see them being caught here at the Timmins boat launch for the last few years, so it’s telling us that we have succeeded in restoring the population in the river.”

Local anglers are being asked by conservation authorities to keep a keen eye for lake sturgeon when the ice thaws and fishing season resumes. Reeling in a sturgeon can often require great strength and patience, but it’s usually worth it just to catch a glimpse of the rare yet resilient ancient beast.

Anglers are encouraged to call researchers if ever they are lucky enough to catch a sturgeon in the region. Remember, if you are lucky enough to catch a sturgeon, that it must be released immediately.

The contacts to call for sturgeon encounters are Larry Robichaud at (705) 288-4559 or Derrick Romain at (705) 235-1322.

“I attended some sturgeon restoration meetings down in the States with Charles Hendry from the MNR,” remembered Robichaud. “Down in the states, they had a couple of similar efforts of moving adult sturgeon and it wasn’t successful for them. After we first transplanted the 50 adult fish, we went to a meeting, and they said, ’You did that for nothing, it’s not going to work for you.’ Well guess what? It’s worked.”