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

11. Activities Permitted by the Recovery Strategy

Section 83(4) of SARA allows for certain activities to be exempt from the general prohibitions of the Act provided the activities are permitted by a recovery strategy, an action plan or a management plan and the persons carrying out the activities are authorized under a federal Act of Parliament to engage in the activities. Any activity, or the cumulative activities, permitted by this recovery strategy must not jeopardize survival or recovery of white sturgeon and regular monitoring and assessment will be required to ensure no jeopardy. The activities permitted in this recovery strategy will be reconsidered if survival and/or recovery are negatively affected at any time, changes to the activities are anticipated that may affect survival and/or recovery, or the conditions for exemption can no longer be met.

Although there is risk associated with routine fish culture procedures, activities, and/or processes (as discussed below in section 11.1.1), conservation aquaculture is necessary to ensure the persistence of white sturgeon into the future. Therefore, conservation aquaculture activities that follow the relevant annual TWG-endorsed broodstock and/or stocking plans are permitted by this recovery strategy, in accordance with section 83(4) of SARA, and are exempt from the SARA prohibitions for impacts to white sturgeon, provided the activities also have a valid authorization under an Act of Parliament.).

11.1 Conservation Fish Culture Activities and Rationale for Exemption

The conservation fish culture (“CFC”) component of white sturgeon recovery activities in British Columbia are currently undertaken by the Freshwater Fisheries Society of British Columbia (FFSBC). The following identifies activities undertaken during their hatchery operations for white sturgeon conservation aquaculture and details the mitigation procedures that minimize risk to white sturgeon welfare.

The premise of CFC activities undertaken by the FFSBC is that they are essential to the survival of the species and may involve activities that pose a risk to all life stages at some time while in captivity. The key to this premise is that risks are calculated and minimized based on an adaptive management approach where new research and technologies are used in concert with best fish culture practices to ensure the optimal outcomes from these efforts. TWG members and the FFSBC have established methods of conduct and fish culture protocols that minimize risks to fish health. The FFSBC has a provincially-approved Fish Health Management Plan (FHMP) that provides guidance on fish culture practices through Standard Operating Procedures and is designed to minimize fish health risks and optimize fish welfare. In addition, the FFSBC has fish health resources including a fully-equipped fish health laboratory and trained fish health professionals that aid in identifying culture/collection practices that may pose a risk to various life stages. Further, fish handling and culture guidelines have been set or agreed to by the TWGs to ensure fish welfare standards are maintained. Finally, only trained and experienced staff are involved in the capture, culture and release of white sturgeon, with the exception of the release of cultured juveniles by the public at stewardship events. FFSBC oversees these events.

In the course of CFC, it is necessary to euthanize young fish during routine culling and the removal of malformed individuals. This is necessary for several reasons. First, some culling occurs prior to release in order to equalize genetic family contributions (i.e., excess or surplus family contributions are not released). This is undertaken to prevent ‘genetic swamping’ in released fish and to try to achieve equal genetic representation of a wide population base. Culling is done under the direction of relevant government agencies, with technical guidance also provided by the TWG.  Secondly, malformed fish occur under all conditions including natural ones where they presumably do not survive in the wild. Third, another instance of euthanizing fish is following experimentation. Fish involved in experiments that are reviewed and approved by relevant government agencies such as toxicological, ecological or physiological studies are not released to the wild (unless directed otherwise by the agencies) and are euthanized as their condition may be compromised compared to cohorts raised under normal CFC conditions. These experiments may be carried out by private sector contractors who subscribe established protocols and who obtain required approvals, including section 73 permits under SARA.  Fourth, fish that may be undergoing a fish health event may be culled for biosecurity reasons to prevent a facility-wide outbreak and to identify pathogens or diseases within white sturgeon progeny. In all cases, records that identify the cause of the mortality and the number of fish affected are maintained rigorously in accordance with FFSBC’s provincially-approved FHMP and the UCWSRI Suggested Protocol for Sampling White Sturgeon Mortality (Upper Columbia White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative 2009b). The actions taken to euthanize fish are strictly controlled and are for the benefit of the population as a whole.

All white sturgeon produced by CFC methods and released to the Columbia or Nechako rivers are marked (scute removal) and PIT-tagged. Both procedures are moderately invasive. External marking is done by the surgical removal of scutes according to an established code published in the UCWSRI Recovery Plan. A PIT tag is inserted into the dorsal musculature of the fish using a trocar following Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) guidelines and procedures described in Parker et al.(1990) and Morton et al.(2003). In both procedures, fish health risks and trauma are minimized by using standard techniques and are performed by trained and experienced staff.

Larval fish are from time to time released to support experimental studies of recruitment failure. Although these fish are not marked for immediate identification, they have traceability through genetic ‘marking’ of their progenitors who were sampled for DNA during spawning events.

Transport of white sturgeon is potentially conducted at four life stages: adult, egg, larvae and juveniles. In all cases, transport is conducted under conditions that are compliant with the CCAC Guidelines on the care and use of fish in research, teaching and testing. In addition, the FFSBC and TWG activities adhere to the Upper Columbia River Sturgeon Capture, Transport and Handling Manual (UC T&H), May 2006 (Golder Associates Ltd. 2006e). Conditions of transport are controlled to minimize stress and negative effects.

Spawning of white sturgeon may necessitate the surgical removal of eggs from ripe female fish. The conditions of the surgical procedures follow those detailed in the Hatchery Manual for the White Sturgeon (WSHM) (Conte et al. 1988) and are regarded as the standard method. Likewise for male sturgeon, fish are handled and spawned using non-invasive techniques and using methods that minimize duress (Conte et al. 1988). Table 25 summarizes the actions that involve risk, the mitigative actions that govern that activity, and associated reference.

Table 25. Fish welfare risk level, mitigative actions, and associated references for risk reduction during conservation fish culture activities at the Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C. The table has four columns read left to right: Activity, Risk, Mitigation, and Reference. The column heading “Mitigation” has a footnote that states the following: Water quality parameters are detailed in the Canadian Committee on Animal Care, Guidelines on: The care and use of fish in research, teaching and testing. The column heading “Reference” has a footnote that states the following: UC T&H: (Golder Associates Ltd. 2006e), CCAC: (Canadian Council on Animal Care 2003), WSHM: (Conte et al. 1988), FHMP: (B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands 2009).

Directly below the column headings are nine rows. The third row has five sub-categories of “Activity” under the name Husbandry as follows: Spawning, Incubation, First feeding, Culling, Marking / tagging, and Experimentation. The table reads as follows from left to right.

Row 1: Transport (all), Minimal, Water Quality & Time, UC T&H/CCAC. Row 2: Release, Minimal, Water Quality & Time, UC T&H. Row 3: Husbandry, empty cell, empty cell, empty cell. Row 4: (Begin sub-categories) Spawning, Minimal/Moderate, Experience & Technique, WSHM. Row 5: Incubation, Minimal, Standard Procedures, WSHM. Row 6: First feeding, Minimal, Optimal Feed/Feeding, WSHM. Row 7: Culling, Minimal, Experience & Technique, FHMP. Row 8: (last sub-category) Marking / tagging, Minimal/Moderate, Experience & Technique, FHMP. Row 9: Experimentation, Minimal/Moderate, TWG Review, empty cell.  

Table 25. Fish welfare risk level, mitigative actions, and associated references for risk reduction during conservation fish culture activities at the Freshwater Fisheries Society of British Columbia
ActivityRiskMitigation1Reference2
Transport (all)MinimalWater Quality, TimeUC T&H/CCAC
ReleaseMinimalWater Quality, TimeUC T&H
Husbandry   
SpawningMinimal/ModerateExperience, TechniqueWSHM
IncubationMinimalStandard ProceduresWSHM
First feedingMinimalOptimal Feed/FeedingWSHM
CullingMinimalExperience, TechniqueFHMP
Marking / taggingMinimal/ModerateExperience, TechniqueFHMP
ExperimentationMinimal/ModerateTWG Review 

1 Water quality parameters are detailed in the Canadian Committee on Animal Care, Guidelines on: The care and use of fish in research, teaching and testing
2 UC T&H: (Golder Associates Ltd. 2006e)
CCAC: (Canadian Council on Animal Care 2003)
WSHM: (Conte et al. 1988)
FHMP: (B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands 2009)

Activities undertaken by the TWGs, the FFSBC and its contractors are structured and monitored to minimize risk and harm to white sturgeon adults, eggs, larvae and juveniles.

The FFSBC, or any other organization conducting white sturgeon CFC, is required to have a joint federal-provincial Introductions and Transfers Committee (ITC) permit for each of the sturgeon stocks that they work with. An ITC permit is held for white sturgeon broodstock transport, holding and spawning, and an additional ITC permit is held for larval releases, and for juvenile rearing, and releases (Ron Ek, Kootenay Trout Hatchery, personal communication).

DFO is of the view that conservation fish culture activities for white sturgeon as described above benefit the species and are required to enhance its chances of survival in the wild.

In accordance with subsection 83(4) of SARA, this recovery strategy authorizes conservation fish culture activities related to transfer of individuals to a hatchery facility, operation of the facility, and releasing the offspring into fish habitat. This exemption is subject to the following conditions:

  • a) transfer of live individuals to a fish rearing facility is carried out under the authority of a licence issued under section 56 of the Fishery (General) Regulations, SOR/93-53;
  • b) operation of the aquaculture component of the conservation fish culture activities are carried out under the authority of a licence issued under section 3 of the Pacific Aquaculture Regulations, SOR/2010-270; and
  • c) release of live individuals into fish habitat is carried out under the authority of a licence issued under section 56 of the Fishery (General) Regulations, SOR/93-53.

Broodstock capture activities must still be permitted in accordance with section 73 of SARA, including all pre-conditions under section 73(3).

11.2 First Nations Directed Harvest of White Sturgeon for FSC – Possible Future Exemption

Section 73 of SARA allows for the permitting of activities that would otherwise contravene the prohibitions of SARA, provided certain conditions are met. As it is not possible to permit the direct harvest of a species at risk under section 73 of SARA, the only mechanism to authorize the direct harvest of white sturgeon is though a section 83(4) exemption.  First Nations may be interested in seeking such an exemption to harvest white sturgeon for Food, Social, and Ceremonial (FSC) purposes. Due to increased threats to population recovery, directed FSC fisheries for white sturgeon are not supported by the recovery strategy at this time. At a time when the population can support cumulative impacts of incidental harm and directed harvest, DFO will consider amending this recovery strategy to permit First Nations FSC harvest of white sturgeon under section 83(4). The following conditions will have to be satisfied:

  • First Nations and DFO, in consultation with B.C. MOE, enter into a SARA section 11 conservation agreement that ensures or confirms:
    • a net gain to sturgeon population and distribution objectives;
    • First Nations involvement in the development and implementation of recovery strategy goals and population and distribution objectives; and
    • monitoring to ensure the conditions of the agreement are being met (e.g., monitoring reports are submitted to DFO and the regional B.C. MOE sturgeon biologist immediately after each fishery).
  • A valid authorization under an Act of Parliament is obtained, along with appropriate conditions, to harvest white sturgeon for FSC purposes.

11.3 Food, Social, Ceremonial (FSC) By-Catch – Possible Future Exemption or Permitting

First Nations Food, Social, and Ceremonial (FSC) fisheries for salmon can result in by-catch of white sturgeon. The Recovery Potential Assessment for White Sturgeon (Wood et al. 2007) indicates that so long as hatchery releases and habitat restoration to fully restore historic rates of natural recruitment are in place, some allowable harm may be permissible for white sturgeon populations. As a result, DFO may consider permitting by-catch through an amendment to this recovery strategy. As an alternative, permitting provisions of SARA section 73 could apply to the FSC salmon fishery. DFO will seek to engage First Nations regarding these various approaches.  

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