British Columbia

Fraser River sturgeon decline prompts fishing closures

Struggling sturgeon populations have prompted several fishing closures in an area that's often dubbed "the heart of the Fraser River."

Province calls it a 'precautionary measure' as populations struggle; spawning channels close May 15

A juvenile sturgeon is tagged on the lower Fraser River so researchers can better understand how much of the population is dying off. (CBC News)

Struggling sturgeon populations have prompted several fishing closures in an area that's often dubbed "the heart of the Fraser River."

Three spawning channels between Chilliwack and Hope, including one that runs along Herrling Island, are closed until the end of July in what the province is calling a "precautionary measure" to ensure the health of white sturgeon populations. Channels along Jesperson and Seabird Island are also closed.

Anglers and conservationists have raised alarms over Herrling Island in particular, where commercial farming and logging are said to have had a destructive impact on the surrounding river ecosystem.

Habitat loss has prompted an investigation from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Many of the cottonwood trees on Herrling Island, left, and other islands in the middle of the Fraser River have already been clearcut to make way for field crops. (BCIT Rivers Institute)

"[Closing the fishery is] an appropriate precautionary move, given the extent of habitat damage that's unfolded there," said Mark Angelo, B.C. Rivers chair of the 100,000 member Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C.

"But we have to find a better way to care for that area, to protect it," he added.

Angelo says habitat loss in the area extends beyond just the sturgeon population and is also adversely affecting salmon stocks in the area.

Critics say popular catch-and-release sturgeon fishing in the area is likely having a negative impact on stocks as well.

Mark Angelo with a white sturgeon, a threatened species Angelo says is being jeopardized by development in the "heart of the Fraser.' (Danny Catt)

Struggling sturgeon

The fishing closures will extend from the middle of May until the end of July, aligning with the white sturgeon spawning period. The closure will take place each year until at least 2021.

"Sturgeon are currently being reviewed for a designation under the Species At Risk Act, meaning some precautionary regulations need to be in place," said representatives from B.C.'s fish and aquatic habitat branch.

The province suggests that popular catch-and-release fishing of large adult sturgeon in those areas during the spawning period can be stressful for the fish and, ultimately, displace them from their spawning grounds.

Several studies are underway to determine the overall impact catch and release has on the population, which has averaged 45,650 since 2001 but varied from year to year. The overall population trend appears to be in decline.

A graph provided by BCIT Fish Wildlife and Recreation Program instructor Marvin Rosenau highlights that populations are on a downward trajectory. (Marvin Rosenau)

In the same time period, the recreational sturgeon fishery has increased.

There were over 18,000 sturgeon tags issued in B.C. in 2017, up from 10,000 in 2009.

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