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COSEWIC Assessment and Update Status Report on the Lake Sturgeon in Canada

Special Significance

The lake sturgeon is a fascinating species. It, like all sturgeons, is a living fossil, and retains the cartilaginous skeleton and shark-like caudal fin of its ancestors of the Devonian period (Harkness and Dymond 1961). It is the largest freshwater fish species in Canada (Scott and Crossman 1998). Sturgeons have been utilized by humans throughout history and were gourmet items in ancient Rome and medieval Europe (Ono et al. 1983). In North America, lake sturgeon were scorned by the early settlers as a nuisance species, but commercial markets for smoked, dried, and fresh fish quickly developed after 1860. As a result, intensive fisheries commenced and peaked in 1900 when over 1 million kg were harvested from the Great Lakes. This, in turn, led to drastic declines from which most populations have never recovered (Houston 1987). In addition to their value as food, including caviar, lake sturgeon were a source of oil, leather and isinglass (Harkness and Dymond 1961). Even today, the quality of Canadian lake sturgeon caviar is judged by many to be second only to Caspian Sea caviar derived from beluga, and retails at over $200/kg, while the flesh retails at about $40/kg.

Lake sturgeon always have been of special significance to Native peoples. The historic relationship of sturgeon to Aboriginal communities includes local or indigenous knowledge such as rare phenotypes, ecological and genetic uniqueness of sub-populations, and declines in abundance. Lake sturgeon have been important to Aboriginal groups since at least 500 BC, if not before, and are still important to many First Nations communities today (Prince 1905; Holzkamm and Wilson 1988; Kelly 1998; Dick and Macbeth 2003). Elders report that sturgeon were a primary food source and were used in their entirety (Kelly 1998). Five kinds of meat were obtained as well as other important products such as containers made from skins, glue from swim bladders, paint binding agents (Prince 1905; Tough 1996), scrapers from scutes, and arrowheads from tail bones (Harkness and Dymond 1961). Sturgeon also were closely connected to Aboriginal spirituality (Holzkamm and Wilson 1988; Dick and Macbeth 2003). Kelly (1998) remembered that the sturgeon was a sacred animal to be given offerings and acknowledged in special ceremonies. In Ojibway mythology, the great sturgeon, Numae, was associated with the spiritual power controlling fishes and fisheries (Holzkamm and Wilson 1988; Kelly 1998). Numae also was the guardian of the Sturgeon Clan, a distinguished Ojibway family (Tough 1996; Kelly 1998). To the Aboriginal groups of the eastern forests, the nutritional, material and spiritual significance of the sturgeon was analogous to the relationship between bison and tribes of the western plains (Ono et al. 1983; Tough 1996).

In some parts of its distribution lake sturgeon is still of high economic importance. Along the Quebec part of the St. Lawrence River, the income of more than 70 commercial fishermen fully or partly depends on lake sturgeon harvest. For many, this is a family business that as been handed on from one generation to the other for more than 100 years.

The lake sturgeon also has special significance relating to watershed health. It is long-lived and has strong site fidelity for spawning and additional habitat requirements, such as specific food items at particular stages of the life history.