New Brunswick·Analysis

Atlantic sturgeon may be listed as threatened species

The federal government is considering a proposal to list Atlantic sturgeon as a 'threatened' species following a recommendation from an expert panel that studies endangered wildlife in Canada.

Fishery, which dates back to the 1880s, could be halted if threatened species designation is given

Atlantic sturgeon future

7 years ago
2:30
The federal government is considering a proposal to list Atlantic sturgeon as a 'threatened' species following a recommendation from an expert panel that studies endangered wildlife in Canada. 2:30

The federal government is considering a proposal to list Atlantic sturgeon as a 'threatened' species following a recommendation from an expert panel that studies endangered wildlife in Canada.

If the Atlantic Sturgeon is protected under the Species at Risk Act, it would end a commercial fishery in New Brunswick that dates back to the 1880s.

The St. John and the St. Lawrence rivers are the only known Atlantic sturgeon breeding grounds in Canada, but other populations exist along the east coast of the United States. 

The world record is a 365-kg female caught in the St. John River in 1924 and these fish can live more than 60-years.

In May 2011, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) met in Charlottetown to look at 40-different species.

This group makes recommendations to the federal government on whether plants and animals are endangered or threatened.

The experts agreed that based on the information in front of them, the Atlantic sturgeon is likely to become endangered if something isn't done to protect the fish.

"The key point here is that there's a single spawning location for these species in the St. John River," said John Post, a biologist at the University of Calgary and a freshwater specialist on the committee.

Post said one disaster in this area might tip the Atlantic sturgeon toward extinction. 

It was estimated that somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 mature fish spawn in the St. John River.

But the COSEWIC report that was sent to the federal government repeatedly makes points, such as: "Reliable population estimates and trends in abundance for the species in Canadian waters are non-existent."

Finally, more than three years after the Department of Fisheries and Oceans received the committee’s recommendation, they are weighing what to do and asking for public input. 

If the federal fisheries minister accepts that Atlantic sturgeon are threatened, it would become illegal to catch and kill them.

'Science is very poor'

Kevin Isherwood (left), a research assistant at Mount Allison University, and Andrew Taylor hold an Atlantic sturgeon in the St. John River. (Submitted by Allie Byrne)
Mike Dadswell, a biologist at Acadia University, says listing this species as threatened is based on incomplete and outdated information. 

Dadswell has been working with Atlantic sturgeon since 1974. He used a grant from the World Wildlife Fund to write the original status report on Atlantic sturgeon, which was then used by COSEWIC, along with other research, to recommend a threatened status.

He submitted the paper, but strongly disagrees with the conclusion of the committee.

"I basically said the science is very poor,” he said.

"I told them it wasn't threatened or endangered, what was the problem was a lack of science.”

Since then, Dadswell has been tagging and tracking Atlantic sturgeon on their summer feeding grounds in the Minas Basin. He estimates a total population of around 10,000 adults and maturing fish in the St. John River.

Matthew Litvak, a professor at Mount Allison University, has been running a program on the St. John River sturgeon since 1998.

He was undecided on whether to support listing the Atlantic sturgeon, but was clear that not enough is known about the species.

"There are a lot of gaps of knowledge about where the Atlantic sturgeon go, how many are in the river, how many are coming up to spawn each year, what the spawning frequency is, and all these pieces of information are really necessary to perform effective management,” he said.

Fishery traced back to 1880s

Lee Coy shows off a few sturgeon along the St. John River in 1937. (Submitted by the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)
Atlantic sturgeon bones turn up at First Nations sites along the St. John River.

Records on commercial catches start in the 1880s. It's estimated that early fishermen were taking about 1,800 individuals every year.

The reported numbers quickly dropped, until the catch peaked again at 80 tonnes in 1994.

Stan Whelpley , 90, holds one of the last four sturgeon licences for the St. John River.

He spent decades on the water, up to the age of 86, setting and checking his nets. 

"The biggest one that I caught was nine-feet-two-inches," he says.

Whelpley says catches have been good except in the 1980s.

"We would usually catch about 10-ton per year, then there was one year we only caught 3.9 ton. That was when they were washing the DDT out of the sprayers in potato growing country,” he said.

Whelpley says the caviar in the DDT days would turn to mush as soon as it was handled. 

Now he says there are many Atlantic sturgeon in the river and he sees no reason to close the historic fishery. 

The current quota is 350. But to keep fishermen from only taking only females, as soon as half the quota is filled with one sex, the fishery is closed. 

Business's future is in jeopardy

Today, only one company buys from the tiny fleet of Atlantic sturgeon fishermen. 

Cornel Ceapa holds caviar ready to ship at the Acadian Sturgeon and Caviar plant on the Kingston Peninsula
"We have one of the best managed, in my opinion, sturgeon populations in the world,” said Cornel Ceapa, who has studied the fish.

His family came from Romania to Canada and started Acadian Sturgeon and Caviar.

"There's a quota that is very strongly enforced, every fish we harvest is tagged individually and reported daily by phone,” he said.

Ceapa smokes the sturgeon meat and crafts the caviar for sale nationwide.

He employs 10 people at his Kingston Peninsula plant in the summer and pays around $1,000 for large fish.

If Atlantic sturgeon were listed as threatened, it might be the end of Ceapa's business. 

And he argues there's no reason to do it.

"This season, the average length of the fish was the highest in the last six years, which to any sturgeon scientist or manager indicates that the population is in good shape,” he said.

Acadia’s Dadswell said he agrees, "The sturgeon population can sustain that level of fishing no problem." 

Even the Department of Fisheries and Oceans did an evaluation in 2013 and found "there continues to be no evidence that this harvest level has resulted in any substantial changes."

Future to be decided

Around the world sturgeon populations have collapsed in the face of over fishing and habitat destruction. In Canada, all other sturgeon species except the Atlantic have been considered at some risk for extinction. 

John Post from the Committee for the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada admits the science might not be perfect, but a threat still exists.

 "As of 2011 our best assessment was that there's one very small and single spawning location that puts this species at substantial risk in the St. John River."

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans will remain open to input from the public until Feb. 27, 2015. Then it's up to the minister to decide whether the Atlantic sturgeon is truly a species at risk.

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