This article was published in January 2020 and may be outdated.
Manitoba Hydro has been operating hydropower stations for over 100 years. While it sounds like a long time, it pales in comparison to a much older river resident: lake sturgeon.
Lake sturgeon, called Namao in Cree, is a prehistoric freshwater fish that’s considered a “living fossil”. They were a staple of our lakes and rivers and Indigenous cultures long before Canada existed.
Sturgeon can grow to be huge. A lake sturgeon captured in the Roseau River in 1903 was reported to be 4.5 metres long and weighed 184 kilograms – it’s thought to be the largest fish captured in Manitoba. Sturgeon can also live a long time, up to 55 years for males and 80–150 years for females.
Sturgeon have a difficult history. Revered by Indigenous cultures as a valuable food source, early settlers saw little value in the fish. Around 1860, settlers began to see sturgeon as a viable substitute for smoked halibut, and its caviar became a sought-after delicacy. This new interest made lake sturgeon the most valuable fish in North America, which led to overfishing – and declining populations – across the continent.
Hydroelectric facilities along sturgeon-heavy rivers pose a challenge for rebuilding fish populations.
The Nelson River is the source of much of Manitoba Hydro’s generation capacity, producing over 70% of electricity in Manitoba. Recognizing the impact of our operations on the fish’s natural habitat, Manitoba Hydro has been a part of several fish-friendly research and conservation groups since the mid-90s.
The Nelson River Sturgeon Board, with members from Manitoba Hydro, Government of Manitoba, First Nations and northern communities, works to ensure entire sturgeon populations – and the ecosystems they inhabit – are healthy. The board also works with the Kischi Sipi Namao Committee and the Keeyask Hydropower Limited Partnership (a partnership between Hydro, Tataskweyak Cree Nation, War Lake First Nation, York Factory First Nation, and Fox Lake Cree Nation) to minimize the impact of the Keeyask project on lake sturgeon populations. Keeyask is a 695-megawatt hydroelectric generating station under construction near Gillam, Manitoba.
And as owner of the Grand Rapids Fish Hatchery, Manitoba Hydro is responsible for producing and stocking fish. Every year, the Grand Rapids hatchery coordinates the collection of fish eggs between late May and early June. The hatchery rears two species of fish: sturgeon and walleye. The fish grow in a controlled environment, under constant monitoring and supervision, until they’re healthy enough to be released. Lake sturgeon are stocked as larvae, fingerlings, or yearlings into their native waterways to support populations in the area.
Manitoba Hydro also tags a number of lake sturgeon every year to track health and monitor movements of the fish.
Our research and partnerships with Indigenous communities has put us in a unique position to help ensure that this amazing fish continues to thrive in Manitoba’s waterways for generations to come.
We’ve also summarized our experience raising and stocking lake sturgeon into a single 2019 report called Lake Sturgeon in Manitoba – A Summary of Current Knowledge.