Sturgeon in Okanagan Lake? Depends who you ask | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Sturgeon in Okanagan Lake? Depends who you ask

The white sturgeon can reach a length of 6 metres, weigh up to 635 kilograms and live for 100 years.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
June 19, 2021 - 3:30 PM

Okanagan Lake might be famous for one large mythical beast, but this story is about another.

White sturgeon have long been rumoured to be plying the deep waters of the lake and occasionally blamed for the occasional sighting of the mythical Ogopogo. White sturgeon can grow up to six metres in length and 635 kg in weight and live more than 100 years.

You'd think the origins of the white sturgeon sightings in the lake would be easier to debunk than the simple marketing efforts of the lake monster, but it's not entirely clear either.

For answers, iNFOnews.ca turned to Okanagan Nation Alliance Fisheries Program Manager Howie Wright. He says First Nations have discussed the issue with provincial and federal authorities regarding the possibility of white sturgeon in Okanagan basin.

“The response from the province is there hasn’t been any documented white sturgeon in the Okanagan basin," he says.

The Okanagan Nation has a name for the white sturgeon, which is ‘cam’tus' in the Syilx language.

"Native elder knowledge keepers do remember cam’tus in the Okanagan basin, years ago. They could see them sunning in the lake as they used nearby trails, and more recently, people fishing could see them in the Penticton River channel,” Wright says.

He’s also heard the story of underwater bridge welders having encounters with the leviathans.

“They would get revved up from the hum of bridge noise from vehicle traffic. It apparently makes a noise that attracts the sturgeon. Some of the divers working under the bridge would get scared when these giant fish came up and rubbed beside them. Those are some of the accounts I’ve seen,” Wright says.

Wright says a native seine fishery actually caught a three-foot long sturgeon in 2018 but that was in Osoyoos Lake.

"When we looked at it in photos the ’scutes’ (scales) looked like it came from a hatchery on the Columbia,” he says, adding there are sturgeon hatcheries on the Columbia River in the U.S.

“There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be sturgeon in the Okanagan basin, historically, and we’re seeing that through some of these accounts. The river spawning habitat is now either limited or gone, and most of the fish are, too,” he says.

He says access restrictions to the Okanagan basin due to dam construction has had the same effect on sturgeon as salmon. He figures the giant fish were probably cut off early in the last century, around 1910 when the first dams in the Okanagan basin were constructed.

“I think it fits in well from the historical point of view where there could be some large sturgeon left that haven’t been able to reproduce since the 1930s or ‘40s with dams and channelization. They’re a long-lived species,” he says.

Wright says an example is Kootenay Lake where people talked historically about catching white sturgeon.

“Then in the 1980s they sent someone out to catch one, and that’s what they did. They are now documented in Kootenay Lake,” he says.

B.C. senior fisheries biologist with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources Tara White confirmed Wright’s comments, saying the province has no documentation of sturgeon in Okanagan Lake, either photos or capture by anglers or fisheries biologists.

“There was an anecdotal report several years ago, during construction of the Bennett Bridge in Kelowna, of divers apparently seeing something in the water. It was apparently large and speculated to be either the Ogopogo or a sturgeon… no proof was ever provided,” White said in an email.

The fisheries biologist also noted the capture of a juvenile sturgeon in Osoyoos Lake in August, 2018. She says the sturgeon was estimated to be a six-year-old hatchery fish, originating out of Wells Pool in the United States.

“It’s suspected the Osoyoos Lake sturgeon was able to traverse the dams and move upstream into Canada in the spring of 2018, due to a ‘perfect storm of flow events,’” she said.

The fish was examined and released back into Osoyoos Lake.

According to a B.C. government publication, the white sturgeon is being threatened by habitat alteration and declining water quality in the province.

White sturgeon are considered primarily resident only in the Fraser and Columbia watersheds in B.C. The species has been much-reduced in the Columbia basin due to historical over-fishing and dam building. Accurate estimates of sturgeon numbers aren’t available but it is thought the number of large breeding-age individuals may be dangerously low in many areas.

The harvest of sturgeon has been illegal in B.C. since 1994.


To contact a reporter for this story, email Steve Arstad or call 250-488-3065 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to tips@infonews.ca and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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