Over 700 local students were on hand to release some of the 4,000 hatchery-raised juvenile sturgeon into the Columbia River near Beaver Creek Wednesday as part of the annual Upper Columbia White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative (UCWSRI).
Although some of the children were a little squeamish about handling the wriggling live fish, others were thrilled with the opportunity.
“The first one was awesome,” said seven-year-old, Grade 2 student, Meghan Hancock. “Touching one… wow!”
The Recovery Initiative was assembled in 2000 to study and try to address the dwindling number of wild sturgeon found in the Columbia and began releasing hatchery-raised fish to the river in 2002.
Although initially the group would release from 10,000 to 12,000 hatchlings to the river they have more recently based the number on the estimated success of previous releases.
“The main reason we have to do this release is because of what is referred to as a failure to recruit by the sturgeon,” said the chair of the Community Working Group of the UCWRSI, Gerry Nellestijn. “We know they’re breeding, we know the eggs are hatching, but they’re not making it to the juvenile stage. Without the Conservation Aquaculture program there would be no survival of sturgeon in the Columbia River.”
According to Nellestjin the lack of wild juvenile sturgeon in the system means that, at present, all of the naturally occurring sturgeon in the Upper Columbia are at least 50 years-old, adding the hatchery fish ensures a variable age range of the stock.
Each of the hatchery fish is implanted with a Passive Integrated Transponder or PIT tag, that allows them to be tracked electronically as they swim by monitoring stations.
“Sturgeon can live 100 years so this is definitely a time-will-tell program,” said Nellestjin. “Males don’t mature until they’re 15 years-old and females at 18 to 20 years. What we have embarked on is an aquaculture program that will take two decades to determine if we can provide successful breeders into the system.”
Because the sturgeon are so long-lived Nellestjin says that the program requires a long commitment from the public.
“With these tags these kids will be able to track these fish for the rest of their lives,”said Nellestjin. “That’s one of the reasons we think it’s so important to involve the kids in this program. They’re almost junior biologists, we need them as ambassadors.”