Sturgeon status, from the Danube to the Fraser

By Mathieu Lebel, Water Management Advisor, WWF-Canada
Earlier this week WWF and TRAFFIC released a report warning that illegal fishing and trade in caviar is threatening the survival of sturgeon in the Danube River Basin – the European Union’s only remaining viable wild populations. This is troubling news – and not just for sturgeon enthusiasts like me.  Sturgeon are already considered the most threatened group of animals  around the world, and the report is meant to spur action for sturgeon in the Danube.
danube sturgeon
When we hear about emerging conservation challenges and opportunities elsewhere, the question that often comes to mind is what is the situation in Canada? In this case, we are interested in the status of sturgeon, how are they threatened, and what is being done to address these threats.
Sturgeon are widely distributed across Canada and have considerable environmental, social, cultural, and economic significance wherever they are found. Five species live in Canadian waters: green sturgeon (Acipenser medirostris) are found along the Pacific Coast and occasionally in the lower reaches of some of British Columbia’s large rivers; white sturgeon, (Acipenser transmontanus), the largest freshwater fish species in North America,  are found in the Fraser and Columbia river systems; lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) are found in many lakes and rivers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec; Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus) are found in the St. Lawrence River and along the Atlantic coast from the Bay of Fundy to Labrador ; and shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum) are found only in New Brunswick’s Saint John River system.
Unfortunately, consistent with the global trend, all of Canada’s sturgeon populations are at risk, designated either as endangered, threatened, or of special concern.

White sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) in the lower Fraser River
White sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) in the lower Fraser River

Sturgeon populations across Canada are still recovering from a range of past threats, such as overfishing, and continue to face others today. In particular, habitat loss and degradation, which includes changes to the quantity, timing and quality of water flowing in rivers, the types of habitat available, and the amount of habitat that is accessible, is one of the most important threats to their survival and recovery. Healthy sturgeon require healthy waters, so improving our understanding of how well Canada’s waters are doing is critical.
Many sturgeon populations receive legal protection at either the federal or provincial level and others are currently being considered for protection. Increasingly, water management, specifically the protection and restoration of environmental flows, is being explored to help sturgeon populations. The key opportunity now is to develop and implement recovery strategies across the country.
There is some good news for sturgeon in Canada: some populations are showing signs of stability or slight improvement, a number of conservation and restoration initiatives have emerged, and best practices are being established for managing development sustainably to protect sturgeon. There is still a long way to go and this will take time, but if Canadians are committed to having healthy waters, we will support healthy sturgeon populations as well.