Commercial Sturgeon Fishery
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
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
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
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.