Photo by Linda HeronPhoto Credit

Surging Sturgeon Success Story – by Laurent Robichaud, Friends of Grassy River

Below is a presentation made to the Ontario Rivers Alliance at their Annual General Meeting on 23 November 2013.  Check out the notes below as well.

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This document is a collection of events and recent developments related to the re-introduction of Lake Sturgeon in the Upper Reach of the Mattagami River near Timmins Ontario.

It was back in 2002 that the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources approached Club Navigateur La Ronde and the Timmins Fur Council to be partners on a project to re-establish lake sturgeon population in the upper reach of the Mattagami River near Timmins Ontario. In the Lands and Forest archives of the early 1900s were records of sturgeon spawning activity observed at Wawaitin Falls by a conservation officer of those early years of the Porcupine mining camp. Log drives, dam construction and subsequent operation combined with fisheries led to population drops to unsustainable levels.

In August 2002, 50 adult lake sturgeon between 25 and 35 lbs were taken from the Lower Mattagami River, loaded in aerated tanks and transported 250 km by road to Timmins. These fish had been captured by Ontario Power Generations who were working on a 10 year cycle population evaluation study in the Little Long Generating Complex head pond. The following paragraphs were released by the Public Affairs Officer for the OPG Northeast Group.

During the freshet, most of the ripe walleye and sturgeon resident in the Little Long GS head pond are likely staging near traditional spawning areas upstream of the head pond (Seyler 1997) and would not be vulnerable to entrainment into Adam Creek. When the duration of operation of the control structure is extended, walleye and sturgeon that spawned upstream return to the head pond and would be more susceptible to entrainment. Because mature sturgeon do not spawn in every year (Seyler 1997) and immature sturgeon and walleye probably do not migrate, these fish would remain in the reservoir and be susceptible to entrainment into Adam Creek.

Since 1990, OPG has conducted an annual sturgeon relocation program that captures sturgeon stranded in isolated pools in the upper portion of Adam Creek and returns them to the Little Long reservoir. The work is done in partnership with Taykwa Tagamou Nation. Sturgeon relocation occurs annually after spring freshet and the spill at Adam Creek ends.

To reduce the stress on sturgeon during weighing, tagging and relocation, OPG’s policy states that a fish cannot be out of the water any longer than 10 minutes. In the rare event that a sturgeon’s survival appears to be unlikely in the judgement of the crew, First Nation members may keep the fish for consumption.

A small spill is provided to cool oxygenated water during spring/summer to potential lake sturgeon trapped in the shallow pools near the gates at Adam Creek until such time that the fish can be safely relocated. This spill will usually require the gate to be opened 5-10 centimeters and can be maintained indefinitely until relocation can occur.

In terms of the benefits of the Lower Mattagami River Project (LMRP), the added generator at Little Long GS will expand flow capacity at the station from 583 cubic meters per second (cms) to 860 cms. The added flow capacity at Little Long will reduce the duration and magnitude of the spill at Adam Creek. The duration of the average annual spill season (diversion of excess flows through Adam Creek), although related to the year-specific inflow distribution, is expected to be reduced by approximately one to eight weeks depending on the strength and duration of freshet. . Marcel Pelchat OPG

Once the spring freshet was complete, OPG have been relocating them back to head pond because the waters below spillway did not support the stranded fish. Since identified in the late 80s, I have followed what was happening at Little Long. Later in 1994 I met up with John Seyler MNR biologist and his involvement with the situation there.  So when my district approached us for this re-location project, I felt good about releasing 50 adult sturgeon from the hardships of these annual entrainment conditions at Little Long.

The adult sturgeon transfer group was led by the Timmins District OMNR supporting team under scientific transfer permit by the OMNR Kapuskasing District authorities.  The OMNR Northeast Regional Science and Information group also helped prepare and support the re-location effort. All 50 survived the long ride and were all returned successfully to the river. In an effort to determine how they would adapt to their new environment, 13 of the strongest candidates were fitted with transmitters and followed closely after release to see how they would react. The first and only year of monitoring didn’t look too promising. Out of the 13 monitored 6 sturgeon decided they wanted to return to home range and bailed over the weir at the Sandy Falls Generating Complex, the downstream man made fish migration barrier. There were requests to move more adult but because of the monitoring results, I decided that I would not participate in any other efforts to move more adult fish. To this day no more transfers were allowed.

In early September of 2007, I received a surprise package at my home. It was a hot day and placed in front of my doorstep was a white 20 litre pail; inside was a 6 inch long young of the year juvenile lake sturgeon swimming around the half fill pail of water. There was no name or phone number left behind so my first thought was to quickly return the little one to the river not far away. The release in front of Cedar Meadows puzzled me a bit as the little one kept coming back to shore over and over. I’m sure he was totally confused and unsure of his new surroundings. Nevertheless he eventually swam for the deep and disappeared. I found out later that my good friend Charles from OMNR was responsible for this unexpected gift.  He was doing some fish sampling on the Tatachikapika River, a major tributary near the Ontario Power Generation Wawaitin complex.  He later described the capture location as a possible nursery habitat for YOY sturgeon. Charles concluded that in 2006 we had a sturgeon spawn event somewhere in the upper reach of the Mattagami River or its major tributaries.

In 2009 both volunteer groups got together and in early September we got groups of students to join us in an effort to both repeat the work done in 2007 on the Tatachikapika and at the same time research possible spawning habitat as far upstream as Potvin chute, described as an adult sturgeon migration barrier. Bathymetry and substrate condition were defined and recorded for future use if this was the chosen spawning bed. To this day we still have not been able to identify this location.

As the years went on, reports of anglers catching small sturgeon kept surfacing again and again.  From both sides of the river in front of the Timmins public boat launch, 2 and 3 pound fish were captured and released near the mouth of the Mountjoy River, another major tributary of the Mattagami.

It seemed as though the juveniles had all gathered at the mouth of the Mountjoy, the deepest spot on the river that covers a total distance of 45 kilometre dam to dam.

The frequent reports of angled captures triggered the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Timmins Fur Council to return to the river and study habitat usage all the while trying to learn more about how and why some of the 50 transfer candidates had chosen to adopt this new environment. Although I wasn’t informed at first of this forward move to work the river again even though results showed 2002 transfer success by reports alone, I decided to join the move with some old club members and a few newcomers to Club Nav, the abbreviated version of Club Navigateur La Ronde of past years. Phase 1 of habitat usage research, led by Derrick Romain of the Timmins District office, started in June of 2011 where the study area was divided into 2 reaches, above Sandy Falls and below Sandy Falls to Lower Sturgeon OPG Generating Complex.  Initial capture results were poor with only 2 adult captured above Sandy and none below. Many juveniles were captured but very few adults to help us broaden the research parameters. Having done more than 10 years of spawn observations at Camus Rapids on the Groundhog River near Foleyet Ontario, I was passionately motivated in finding the preferred spawning bed location of our newcomers to this stretch of the Mattagami River.

The following spring we aggressively attempted to follow spawn related movements. Sturgeon #24, age 27, weighing in at 13 kg at time of capture; astonished all of us by his travels up and down river during early May 2012. This led me to believe he was a ripe male in search of a female ready to spawn. I believe he never did find one that year and eventually returned to his preferred home range. We all quickly realized that we did not have enough candidates to do proper spawn related research. After many discussions it was decided to attempt to capture more adults only. Nevertheless we did accumulate plenty of interesting habitat usage data which helped us develop a strategy to return to the river and try to capture more adult sturgeon so we could have more monitored fish to be able to follow during the spawn season.

In early 2013, it was decided to concentrate our efforts above Sandy Falls GS where the re-introduction first originated. Therefore the Timmins Fur Council group joined us and a plan to return for adult captures was developed by MNR. In early September of 2013 we all joined forces for a 2 week period of gill netting and trot line efforts to capture more of the elusive fish. The first week Club Nav members joined Derrick and his crew with the addition of a representative from our newest major sponsor, Kidd Operations a Glencore Company. We succeeded in capturing and fitted transmitters  to 2 adults and 1 juvenile. The following week, the Timmins Fur Council and MNR team added 4 more adult all above the 55 lbs mark with even one that weighed in at 84 lbs. Sturgeon # 29 is very likely a near egg ripe female that could spawn next spring. She also, like all the others recovered very well from surgery and returned to home base at the Spool which is the favoured gathering location on the river on a year round basis.

Derrick and his crew also increased fish movement signal capture possibilities by installing permanent monitoring stations at key locations of all major tributaries below Wawaitin GS and at the confluence of the now designated spillway and GS tailrace below Wawaitin. Now remains the challenge to locate preferred spawn habitat in order to better understand all aspects of habitat usage of the recovered population in the Upper Reach of the Mattagami River. Next year was going to be the 20th anniversary of my first sturgeon spawn observation at Camus Rapids on the Groundhog River.

I had plans of returning to my roots but because of recent events and captures on the Mattagami combined with the ministry’s commitment to learn more about why this adult transfer was successful, I decided to work here again. I hope not to miss the 25th on the Hog for that is where I have fallen head over heel on a river’s hidden wonders. The journey has been rewarding and eye opening way beyond my expectations. Nature’s marvels never cease to amaze us all.