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Recovery Strategy for White Sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) in Canada [Proposed]

9. Basin Overview for each Recovery Population

An overview of the general structure and directives for the Fraser, Nechako, Columbia and Kootenay River basin teams is provided below.

9.1 Fraser River

In 2003, the B.C. Ministry of Environment together with First Nations, federal government, commercial fishers, and conservation stakeholders, initiated and supported a working group to address the recovery of Fraser River basin white sturgeon populations (excluding the Nechako River stock groups). The group reviewed information availability and needs, and conducted assessments of impacts and threats to the populations. The primary role of the group was the development of a conservation plan for the upper, middle, and lower Fraser River white sturgeon populations, which was completed in December 2005 (Fraser River White Sturgeon Working Group 2005). In close association with that earlier process, and with many of the same participants, an informal recovery planning process was initiated for the lower and middle Fraser River populations in 2005. (At that time consideration of the Upper Fraser population was shifted to the NWSRI Technical Working Group, due to the similar geography and SARA classification of both populations.) Technical and community working groups were formed to provide an informative and cooperative means to develop recovery action plans, and undertake and support recovery initiatives for the lower and middle Fraser River white sturgeon populations.

The Lower and Mid Fraser White Sturgeon TWG is a group of sturgeon experts and is made up of members from First Nations, B.C. Ministry of Environment sturgeon biologists, DFO fishery biologists, educational institutions, angling guides and the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society (FRSCS). The role of the TWG is to represent sturgeon. The TWG interprets the available information and science to develop recovery action plans and initiatives for lower and middle Fraser white sturgeon, and also assists in developing protection and management objectives for the populations.

The Lower and Mid Fraser White Sturgeon Community Working Group (CWG) is a group of community stakeholders that have an interest in lower and middle Fraser sturgeon management and recovery. This group is currently made up of representatives from local First Nations, B.C. Ministry of Environment sturgeon biologists, DFO fishery biologists, educational institutions, the FRSCS, independent angling guides, the Fraser Valley Angling Guide Association, independent anglers, and a representative from the DFO Sportfish Advisory Committee. The role of this group is to represent the interests of the various stakeholders in the recovery of the lower and middle Fraser sturgeon populations. CWG members have assisted the TWG in the development of recovery plans and initiatives. The role of the CWG has also been to review any recovery plans or initiatives that were developed by the TWG and provide their concerns, recommendations and/or support.

The TWG and CWG use the Fraser River White Sturgeon Conservation Plan (Fraser River White Sturgeon Working Group 2005) as their higher level guiding document for recovery planning, and in 2007, developed a living recovery planning worksheet to further guide recovery activities. Over the last decade, the support for recovery initiatives has come from First Nations, provincial and federal governments, substantial in-kind contributions from the angling community and from private benefactors. The majority of studies associated with recovery have been undertaken or lead by the FRSCS in cooperation with provincial and federal biologists and stakeholders. The B.C. Ministry of Environment implemented a sturgeon conservation surcharge for sturgeon angling in non-tidal waters in September of 2008 to better record and manage recreational angling activities and to help raise funds to support recovery initiatives for these populations.

Additional information on Fraser River white sturgeon, recovery initiatives and the FRSCS can be found on the B.C. Ministry of Environment website, and on the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society website. The TWG and CWG chair for the Fraser population is Erin Stoddard (B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations).

9.2 Nechako River

A recovery planning process was initiated for Nechako River (and Upper Fraser) white sturgeon by the province of B.C. in 2000 (Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative 2009). The Nechako River White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative (NWSRI) was formed and is “responsible for identifying the reasons why white sturgeon are no longer successfully spawning and surviving in the Nechako River watershed, and for the design and implementation of habitat protection, restoration and management options” (Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative 2009). The NWSRI is composed of two committees: the TWG and the CWG.

The Nechako TWG (formerly called the Recovery Team) was formed in 2000, and consists of technical experts including federal and provincial biologists, First Nations and industry experts (Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative 2009). The TWG develops hypotheses for the decline of the Nechako River white sturgeon population and plans for recovery to a self-sustaining population based on the best-available science, local and traditional knowledge (Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative 2009). The Nechako TWG has undertaken a series of investigations into the causes of recruitment failure, leading up to current in-river habitat experiments.

The Nechako CWG (formerly called the Action Planning Group) was assembled in 2001. The CWG was created to provide input in the NWSRI from various stakeholders and act as a public advocate for Nechako white sturgeon recovery (Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative 2009). It is comprised of representatives from First Nations, non-government environmental organizations, industry, local and regional governments and affected public. “The CWG provides an opportunity for key groups essential to the success of a recovery plan to become involved in the process. The group focuses on increasing the public’s awareness and knowledge about the recovery process, as well as the ecological problems facing the Nechako River white sturgeon. It is also concerned with building and maintaining community support for the recovery plan.” (Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative 2009)

In 2004, a basin-specific Recovery Plan was developed to “ensure technical soundness and meaningful participation of the public” in recovery efforts (Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative 2004). In 2007, a Strategic Plan for the Nechako River white sturgeon recovery facility and interpretive centre was also developed in order to secure resources for capital and long-term funding for constructing and operating a conservation aquaculture facility in the Saik’uz Territory in the District of Vanderhoof (Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative 2009). In early 2013, an agreement was reached to begin construction on this facility, and construction is currently underway.

In addition to the Recovery Plan, the Nechako River White Sturgeon Habitat Management Plan was developed in 2008 to provide habitat requirements and rehabilitation/enhancement programs that will actively work to support the conservation of Nechako River white sturgeon (Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative 2009).

Further information on the NWSRI and supporting documents can be found on their website. The TWG chair for the Nechako River population is Cory Williamson (B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations), and the CWG chair is Brian Frenkel (Avison Management).

9.3 Columbia River

The Upper Columbia River White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative ( UCWSRI) was formed in 2000 to aid the recovery of the Columbia River white sturgeon population. The initiative began with a 2-year agreement signed between the provincial and federal governments and B.C. Hydro formalizing a common commitment to address the endangered status of upper Columbia River white sturgeon ( UCWSRI 2009). Similar to the other basins, two core teams are involved in recovery planning and include the TWG (formerly the Recovery Team), and the CWG (formerly the Action Planning Group).

The Upper Columbia White Sturgeon TWG is made up of technical experts responsible for the development and implementation of the Recovery Plan, and is comprised of biologists, researchers, and other sturgeon experts from provincial, federal and state governments, B.C. Hydro, Teck Metals, Columbia Power Corporation, Bonneville Power Administration, Spokane Tribe of Indians, Colville Confederated Tribes and other groups (Upper Columbia White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative 2009a). In November 2002, the TWG completed a Recovery Plan and technical appendices that identifies goals and recovery measures for rebuilding the white sturgeon population (Upper Columbia White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative 2002), which has now been updated after ten years (Upper Columbia White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative 2012). The Recovery plan summarizes white sturgeon biology, factors leading to the decline of white sturgeon in the upper Columbia River, as well as conservation measures and recommendations for recovery (Upper Columbia White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative 2002). The TWG also undertook a Recruitment Failure Hypothesis Review (RFHR) and evaluation of historic recruitment patterns to develop and evaluate a set of hypotheses to guide future work on recruitment failure of white sturgeon populations in the upper Columbia River (Gregory and Long 2008, McAdam 2012).

The Upper Columbia White Sturgeon CWG is made up of public stakeholders including federal, provincial and local governments, First Nations, public and industry from the U.S. and Canada that are “responsible for developing a common vision and public support for sturgeon recovery, providing information and feedback on recovery operations, and informing the public and seeking funding for recovery projects” (Upper Columbia White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative 2009a).

Further information on the UCWSRI and supporting documents can be found on their website. The TWG chair for the Columbia River population is Jim Powell (Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C., Victoria) and the CWG chair is Gerry Nellestijn (Salmo Watershed Streamkeepers Society, Salmo, B.C.).

9.4 Kootenay River

The Kootenai River population of white sturgeon was listed as Endangered under the U.S. federal Endangered Species Act in 1994 (Duke et al. 1999). The Kootenai River White Sturgeon Recovery Team is made up of members from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Idaho and Washington), Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Bonneville Power Administration, B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Further information on the Kootenai River white sturgeon recovery process and supporting documents can be found on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website. The Canadian representative for the Kootenai River White Sturgeon Recovery Team is Matthew Neufeld (B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations – Nelson).

10. Implementation

10.1 Potential Impacts for Other Species

Enhancement of presently degraded ecosystem conditions is believed to be required for effective recovery of white sturgeon throughout much of its range. Habitat enhancement for the benefit of white sturgeon may have positive influences on abundance and distribution of some other species. However, recovery efforts aimed at white sturgeon may have negative effects on other native fish or wildlife species, but this impact is considered unlikely to have a population level effect and, as such, risks are considered reasonable when compared to the risks of losing an endangered species. There are four specific activities that deserve mention here.

First, if alterations to flows in dam-affected systems are recommended for white sturgeon recovery or to further refine data gaps, these flow changes may affect other fish species in the river. The impacts of recovery actions on other species in the affected river systems may need to be further evaluated and consideration will have to be given to potential negative impacts prior to implementation.

Second, some concerns have been raised regarding the use of aquaculture to supplement natural recruitment in three of the populations of white sturgeon in British Columbia. Concerns include genetic effects on target and to adjacent populations, the introduction of diseases into wild populations, competition with target angling species (i.e., their prey), and by-catch of white sturgeon which may influence the angling experience. The peer-reviewed breeding plans (Kincaid 1993 , Pollard 2002 ) aim to maximize genetic diversity, and have been assessed to be low risk (Williamson et al. 2003 ) . The implementation plans include monitoring programs and stop criteria to avoid long-term genetic impacts to the population or connected populations of white sturgeon. The strict implementation of these plans and management of conservation aquaculture hatcheries will ensure that disease introductions and genetic effects are low risk, whereas without aquaculture programs the risk of extirpation of white sturgeon would be high. Further evaluation of aquaculture inputs on prey species and by-catch is likely required.

Third, a long-term strategy is needed for potentially introducing white sturgeon to Kinbasket Reservoir to establish a population upstream of Mica Dam on the Columbia River. Planning for this activity is still preliminary. As part of the planning process, Westslope Fisheries and Canadian Columbia River Intertribal Fisheries Commission (CCRIFC) (2005 ) conducted an ecological risk assessment of the proposed introduction and are in the midst of conducting a multiyear sampling and habitat assessment program (2009). CCRIFC (2005 ) has also conducted a pathogen risk assessment. However, both assessments were qualitative as there are few relevant data available to develop a quantitative assessment. Nevertheless, the assessment was thorough in identifying a range of potential effects, but acknowledged considerable uncertainty in its predictive ability. Studies concluded that there are few substantial risks associated with the introduction and that the greatest risks observed were to burbot, kokanee, mountain whitefish and prickly sculpin because of predation by white sturgeon. The ecological risks need to be further assessed relative to the benefits of white sturgeon introduction. Further review of these issues is expected in conjunction with activities under the Columbia River Water Use Plan (Columbia River Water Use Plan Consultative Committee 2005 ) . The Kootenai Recovery Team is considering a similar transplant of white sturgeon to Lake Koocanusa, which extends into Canada, but a risk assessment has not been completed.

Fourth, the management of Aboriginal, commercial, and recreational fisheries does not consider the needs of white sturgeon. Returning salmon in the Fraser and Nechako rivers are important food sources for white sturgeon; in the lower Fraser eulachon and smelt are also important foods. There is evidence that white sturgeon located in the upper Columbia River at Waneta Eddy are food limited (Van Poorten and McAdam 2010 ) . The extent to which most of the white sturgeon populations are food-limited is not known, but it is possible that management of prey species to meet sturgeon needs will be required for recovery.

10.2 Actions Already Completed and/or Underway

Recovery-related actions have been underway in most areas for several years, and are communicated regularly through basin-level teams. The following provides a short summary of actions completed or initiated at both the national and the basin level.

10.2.1 National Level

  1. The National Recovery Team for White Sturgeon, with national and basin level subcommittees, was established.
  2. Terms of reference for the National Recovery Team and basin level subcommittees were developed.
  3. A COSEWIC status report was completed in 2003 (Ptolemy and Vennesland 2003 ) and is available through the SAR Public Registry website. A subsequent COSEWIC reassessment was also completed; the status report will become available on the SARA Public Registry website in Fall 2013.
  4. The SARA listing process has been completed following the 2003 COSEWIC assessment. A SARA listing process following the 2012 COSEWIC reassessment will commence in 2013-2014.
  5. A Recovery Potential Assessment for White Sturgeon (Wood et al. 2007) was developed to inform species recovery
  6. Critical habitat has been identified in this recovery strategy.

10.2.2 River Basin Level

Lower and Mid-Fraser River

  1. A Conservation Plan for Fraser River White Sturgeon was developed with input from DFO, B.C. Ministry of Environment, Sto:lo First Nation, B.C. Aboriginal Fisheries Commission, Fraser Basin Council, and the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society. The plan summarizes existing information, assesses threats, and recommends mitigation and management procedures.
  2. A Community Working Group and a Technical Working Group for the Middle and Lower Fraser have been established. Members that represented the upper Fraser River area joined a separate Nechako and Upper Fraser River group.
  3. Some fisheries management actions have been implemented to prevent, limit or mitigate by-catch of Fraser River white sturgeon in the commercial salmon gillnet fisheries (e.g. all white sturgeon by-catch must, by regulation, be released).
  4. Public awareness and education about Fraser River white sturgeon has been ongoing through a number of efforts by agencies and non-governmental organizations. Efforts include the publication of a white sturgeon brochure in the Wildlife in British Columbia at Risk series, ongoing communications, fund raising and study efforts through the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society, development and implementation of Fraser River white sturgeon education programs for delivery to schools and communities, education and awareness programs, research partnerships, and community outreach initiatives aimed at First Nations fishermen and communities. See the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society website for more details.
  5. A wide variety of scientific investigations have been completed or are ongoing, including:
    1. monitoring and assessment of white sturgeon abundance through mark-recapture studies in the lower Fraser River and portions of the mid–Fraser River;
    2. genetics research to identify populations;
    3. preliminary studies on the effects of various gear capture types on the short term survival of white sturgeon;
    4. radio and acoustic telemetry tagging studies to determine white sturgeon habitat use and movement;
    5. studies on habitat use by juvenile white sturgeon
    6. ecological research (e.g., habitat use, movements and migration, diets, growth and feeding, behaviour);
    7. habitat research (spawning habitat research, effects of dredging in the lower Fraser River mainstem, juvenile habitat use); and,
    8. numerous scientific documents and publications have been written about Fraser River white sturgeon (see Appendix C of Fraser River White Sturgeon Working Group 2005, and Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society, 2013) .

Nechako River and Upper Fraser River

  1. A Recovery Plan for Nechako River White Sturgeon was completed in 2004, and a Conservation Plan for Upper Fraser River White Sturgeon was completed in 2005. The plans summarize existing information, assess threats, and recommend mitigation and management procedures. The planning processes included diverse participants, including First Nations, B.C. Ministry of Environment, Fisheries & Oceans Canada, and industry.
  2. Planning groups assembled to provide input to the earlier plans have formed into a Community Working Group and Technical Working Group for the Nechako and Upper Fraser rivers, and operate as components of the National Recovery Team for White Sturgeon.
  3. Fisheries management actions, and stewardship efforts have been undertaken to prevent direct or by-catch harvest of Nechako and Upper Fraser River white sturgeon in local fisheries.
  4. Public awareness and education about Nechako and Upper Fraser River white sturgeon has been ongoing through a number of efforts by agencies and non-governmental organizations, and efforts of the CWG.
  5. Conservation aquaculture plans have been completed for the Nechako River, including breeding plans to minimize genetic consequences of captive breeding and release. Artificial propagation of Nechako River white sturgeon began in 2006 with a pilot project that lasted until 2010. Demonstration of the feasibility of the conservation fish culture program is complete; efforts to implement a long-term conservation aquaculture program are underway.
  6. A wide variety of scientific investigations have been completed or are ongoing, including:
    1. population status investigations for the upper Fraser, led by the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation;
    2. population assessment and monitoring of white sturgeon abundance;
    3. ecological research (e.g., habitat use, spawning, movements and migration, diets, growth and feeding, behaviour);
    4. habitat research (spawning site habitat work including substrate studies, juvenile habitat studies);
    5. recruitment restoration studies (e.g., field studies of larval habitat use, growth and survival);
    6. risk assessment of white sturgeon introductions; and,
    7. collection of local and traditional knowledge.

Kootenay River

  1. Kootenai white sturgeon was listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1994. A U.S. Recovery Team was formed in 1996, with Canadian participation.
  2. A Recovery Plan for Kootenai River White Sturgeon was completed in 1999 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with input from Canadian agencies. The plan summarizes existing information, assesses threats, and recommends mitigation and management procedures. The recovery planning process for Kootenai River white sturgeon continues to be led by U.S. agencies with active participation from Canadian agencies.
  3. A Kootenai River White Sturgeon Implementation Plan and Schedule was completed in 2005. Preparation of this Implementation Plan was administered by the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho through a contract from the Bonneville Power Administration as part of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Fish and Wildlife Program, with assistance from the Kootenai River White Sturgeon Recovery Team. This 5 year Plan and Schedule delineated research, monitoring and evaluation actions believed necessary to protect, rehabilitate, and maintain Kootenai River white sturgeon in conjunction with activities highlighted in the population’s Recovery Plan (USFWS 1999). Information in this Plan and Schedule is intended to complement current Recovery Plan activities and provide valuable information in its update (Kootenai Tribe of Idaho 2005 ) .
  4. A conservation aquaculture program was established in 1990 and has released more than 50,000 juveniles as a stop gap measure to prevent extinction.
  5. A conservation aquaculture breeding plan was completed in 1993 and recently updated to reduce the risk of genetic effects from hatchery releases. Broodstock are captured wild Kootenay white sturgeon, which are then released alive after gamete extraction.
  6. Fisheries management actions were implemented to prevent harvest of Kootenay River white sturgeon.
  7. Population assessments in 1989 confirmed almost total recruitment failure since 1974.
  8. A wide variety of scientific investigations have been completed or are ongoing, including:
    1. monitoring of white sturgeon abundance in Kootenay River and Kootenay Lake;
    2. annual indexing programs for wild and hatchery origin juveniles and larvae;
    3. ecological research (e.g., habitat use, spawning, movements and migration, diets, growth and feeding, behaviour);
    4. habitat research (spawning site habitat work including substrate studies, juvenile habitat studies);
    5. experimental creation and remediation of white sturgeon spawning habitat; and,
    6. implementation of operational changes at Libby Dam (e.g., improved temperature control, tiered sturgeon flow volumes, Variable Flow (VARQ) flood control).

Columbia River

  1. The Upper Columbia River White Sturgeon Technical Working Group was formed with representation from B.C. Hydro, B.C. Ministry of Environment, First Nations (Canada), Bonneville Power Administration, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Teck Metals Ltd., U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Tribal agencies, U.S. Geological Survey, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Working Group completed a Recovery Plan in 2002, and revised it in 2013. The plan summarizes existing information, assesses threats, and recommends mitigation and management procedures.
  2. A Community Working Group was formed in 2001 to provide outreach support and provide local and socio-economic input on recovery actions proposed by the Technical Working Group.
  3. The Community Working Group and Technical Working Group now operate as components of the National Recovery Team for White Sturgeon.
  4. Fisheries management actions have been implemented to prevent harvest of upper Columbia River white sturgeon in local fisheries.
  5. Public awareness and education about upper Columbia River white sturgeon has been ongoing through a number of efforts by agencies and NGOs. Efforts include brochures, annual reports, development of school curriculum materials, school participation in hatchery sturgeon releases, and participation at numerous conferences and local events.
  6. Conservation aquaculture plans have been completed including breeding plans to minimize genetic consequences of captive breeding and release. Artificial propagation is ongoing, with the intent of meeting the breeding plan objectives every year.
  7. A wide variety of scientific and adaptive management investigations have been completed or are ongoing, including:
    1. population assessment and monitoring of white sturgeon abundance;
    2. life history research (e.g., habitat use, spawning, movements and migration, diets, growth and feeding, behaviour);
    3. habitat research (spawning site and juvenile habitat quantification studies, juvenile habitat studies) including location, flow, temperature, substrate and other parameters);
    4. feasibility investigation of alternative mitigation measures, and subsequent pilot tests and related monitoring;
    5. risk assessment of white sturgeon introductions; and,
    6. collection of local and traditional knowledge.

10.3 Statement of When Action Plans Will be Completed

Within five years of posting the final Recovery Strategy on the SARA Public Registry, one or more basin-specific Action Plans for White Sturgeon will be developed by DFO, in collaboration with the National Recovery Team and basin partners.