It can live 150 years, can grow up to six metres long and has not changed in more than 100 million years. The white sturgeon, North America’s largest freshwater fish, is also in such critical decline from overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction that many remaining populations have been declared endangered in both Canada and the United States.
This living relict of the Jurassic inhabits the muddy bottoms of big western rivers like the Fraser and Columbia, yet it is glaring how little we know about the white sturgeon. But researchers from Vancouver Island University (VIU) expect our dearth of knowledge about this and many other sturgeon species is about to improve. Next spring, VIU will open the International Centre for Sturgeon Studies (ICSS) in Nanaimo, B.C.
ICSS is the brainchild of VIU professor emeritus David Lane, known in local fisheries circles as the “Sturgeon General.” In the 1980s, when VIU was still called Malaspina University-College, Lane acquired a number of adult white sturgeon for research and education. And when he retired in 1999, he enlisted John Morgan, a fisheries biologist with a deep interest in sturgeon, to help establish an international centre devoted to the unusual fish.
ICSS has been designed to host fisheries scientists and their students from close to home and all over the world, including sturgeon specialists based in Germany, Portugal and Iran. The bottom floor of the facility will house VIU’s resident sturgeon and will include wet labs for studying the fish, while the upper floor will be dedicated to offices and dry labs.
According to Morgan, ICSS will enable new research in several broad areas. “The centre will contribute to the conservation, protection and restoration of an endangered species, as well as the education of students and the public,” he says, “and in the future, it will help increase the efficiency of food production.”
ICSS will also support new fieldwork on the lower Fraser River near Vancouver, home to the last remaining truly wild white sturgeon population. In the lab, researchers will be able to simulate environmental conditions that are challenging sturgeon populations in the wild, such as pollution and rising water temperatures.
The captive sturgeon that are the progeny of the specimens Lane collected in the 1980s have been serving as a source of eggs and milt for local hatchery programs. Although there is now just one sturgeon farm in British Columbia, ICSS will become an incubator for a new aquaculture industry that Morgan says can be developed sustainably. Sturgeon can be raised on land in freshwater closed-containment systems, unlike the controversial open-pen salmon farms dotting the Pacific coast. Aquaculture researchers at ICSS will work to develop fish feed that emulates wild diets and will probe the ideal temperatures and fish densities needed to optimize growth on a fish farm.
Morgan and his team understand the importance of opening their research to the public and are planning to expand the existing public education programs, which currently draw kids from all over the Greater Nanaimo area. “Think about a great-great-grandmother sturgeon swimming around on the bottom of the Fraser River right now,” says Morgan. “She’s over 100 years old and has been there since this area was all wilderness. What a story she could tell. You can translate that into terms kids understand.”