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Manitoba's Commercial Sturgeon Fishery

Although it did not start as early as the commercial fishery in the eastern part of North America, the early Manitoba fishery followed almost exactly the same path. An initial period of high production was followed by a dramatic and permanent decline.

Large scale commercial sturgeon fishing began in Manitoba on Lake Winnipeg when the railway linked Manitoba with eastern markets in 1887. By 1896 production reached 80,000 kg, and in 1900 it peaked at almost 450,000 kg. With these levels of harvest, the sturgeon population was depleted rapidly and the Lake Winnipeg fishery was closed in 1910 after production dropped dramatically to only 13,600 kg.

Sturgeon fishing was reopened in 1916 to meet demands resulting from World War I, and 54,000 kg was produced. However, by 1920 production dropped to 3,400 kg. Increased prices between 1922 and 1928 caused resurgence in sturgeon fishing, but after 1924 production dropped dramatically. The Lake Winnipeg sturgeon population never recovered from this early exploitation that removed a total 2,808,865 kg of sturgeon.

The sturgeon fishery in northern Manitoba started in 1907 and centered on the Nelson River. Intensive fishing did not begin until 1917 when production peaked at almost 70,000 kg. Catches declined rapidly after 1924 and the fishery had to be closed in 1929.

In 1936, a review of the status of sturgeon in Manitoba documented the catastrophic decline in production and populations from 1900 to 1910. The review concluded that slow growth dooms the sturgeon when faced with intense fishing pressure. The potential harvest for the entire province was estimated at less than 4,500 kg, and there were worries that even that low level of harvest might be unsustainable.

The Nelson River fishery was reopened in 1937, but production peaked at less than 14,000 kg in 1938, and began to decline after 1941. By 1946, stocks were considered depleted, and the commercial fishery was closed again. It reopened again in 1953 and production remained steady at about 13,000 kg until 1957 and then declined rapidly until fishing was closed again 1960. It was reopened again in 1970 with much more restrictive quotas, mesh sizes, size limits and seasons, and remained open with relatively constant production until 1991. The Nelson River commercial sturgeon fishery was closed in 1992 and is unlikely to reopen in the foreseeable future. Over its brief history, a total of 618,404 kg were removed, over 60% of which was during the first decade of the fishery.

This was the fourth time in the history of the Nelson River sturgeon fishery that the fishery had to be closed. The last period of fishing, from 1970 to 1991, lasted twice as long as any of the previous fisheries (each of which lasted less than 10 years before collapsing).

Sturgeon Stock Status

In Manitoba sturgeon have gone from being widely distributed and abundant when the province was first settled, to the situation today where there are significantly fewer populations with a relatively small number that are not stressed and remain healthy and self-sustaining. Most of these populations are in remote areas.

The most significant populations of sturgeon in Manitoba occur in our major rivers and Lake Winnipeg. Populations are still present in the Nelson, Churchill, Winnipeg and Saskatchewan Rivers. There appears to be only remnant populations remaining in Lake Winnipeg. While scientific information is limited, indicators are that most of the populations on the Nelson and Saskatchewan Rivers are under varying degrees of stress. Data on Churchill River sturgeon stocks is limited. However, it is felt that there are limited remaining populations, which are for the most part unsustainable.

There are pockets of sturgeon populations that remain healthy and self-sustaining. These occur on the Hayes River and its tributaries and in Round Lake on the Pigeon River system. Kautunigan Lake on the Bloodvein River also supports a sturgeon population, though it is small and may not be sustainable.

History of Lake Sturgeon in Manitoba

J.M. Waddell writes:

  "prior to 1903 when the locks were built at Lockport on the Red River, this was probably the greatest place in all of Canada, if not the world, to catch freshwater sturgeon. The Aboriginals claimed that when the sturgeon ran in June you could almost walk across the river on their backs."

  "In October, 1903 Sandy Waddell, who operated a mill in Dominion City, killed a 400 pound sturgeon measuring 15 feet in length. The sturgeon, it would seem, had spent most of its strength trying to escape its prison in the pool where sustenance and water were becoming more scarce each day. It must have been entrapped since early summer. Its age was estimated at one hundred and fifty years and because sturgeon return to the river of their birth each year, this mighty fish must have made many trips from Lake Winnipeg up the Red River, and then into the clear waters of the Roseau River."

Sturgeon were highly prized by Aboriginal peoples who considered them the "buffalo of the water." A single sturgeon yielded more meat than dozens of smaller species, the flesh smoked well, and sturgeon proved easy prey during spawning when they congregated in large numbers. Aboriginals used all parts of the sturgeon, making soup from the cartilaginous "backbone" and using tailbones as arrowheads for small game.

Early settlers and fishermen scorned the sturgeon as a nuisance fish of little food or commercial value. Sturgeon caught in nets set for "valuable fish" were dumped in the water or piled on shore for pig feed, cord wood, or fertilizer.

Not so across the Atlantic. The food of pigs was the fish of kings, so decreed by King Edward II of England who made sturgeon a royal fish. Later, lake sturgeon eggs, once feed to hogs, were sought after in Europe as a new source of caviar. The demand transformed sturgeon from a worthless nuisance to the most valuable commercial freshwater fish in North America.

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