‘Blessed with what’s in our rivers’: Northern Ontario waters a refuge for sturgeon

It’s been 30 years now since Laurent Robichaud was rafting down the Groundhog River near his hometown of Fauquier and he first saw sturgeon spawn.That moment has led him to spend years working to preserve the ancient fish in northern Ontario rivers, one of the few sanctuaries for sturgeon, which are endangered in most of the rest of the world. “It was quite the show,” Robichaud remembered of that first spawn. “It’s quite a spectacle to see. You’re talking fish that are about 60 to 80 pounds.”Soon after, he and other river enthusiasts started bringing high school students to the spawning grounds on the Groundhog River, always capturing a male for the kids to hold and take pictures with.”And also be blessed with what’s in our rivers and what’s important about protecting species at risk,” said Robichaud, who now lives in Timmins.For decades, Laurent Robichaud has taken high school students to see the sturgeon spawn on the Groundhog River near his hometown of Fauquier, including these girls in the late 1990s. (Supplied/Laurent Robichaud )It was at one of those spring spawns in the mid-1990s, when representatives of the Ministry of Natural Resources approached him and his colleagues about helping out with a relocation of male sturgeon to the Mattagami River.That happened in 2002, with some giant fish implanted with radio transmitters so they could be tracked, and by 2006 there were young sturgeon showing up in the river near Timmins and today anglers regularly catch and release them from the city boat launch.Robichaud says he is driven by a “passion for rivers,” but also for sturgeon who are “good vacuum cleaners that keep the river healthy.”Tim Haxton, who recently retired after 23 years as a fisheries specialist with the Ministry of Natural Resources, says that historically sturgeon were “abundant throughout Ontario,” but the population was devastated in the late 1800s when they were fished for meat and caviar.He says they were mostly wiped out in the Great Lakes and other large lakes such as Nipissing and Nipigon, but survived in more remote northern rivers.Morning North15:07The reintroduction of sturgeon fish to the Mattagami River near TimminsAll this month on Morning North, we’re revisiting stories we did in the past about the return of certain animal species to northern Ontario… and checking in on how they’re doing now. We went back to a documentary by CBC reporter Megan Thomas in 2011 that covered the reintroduction of sturgeon to the Mattawa River near Timmins. Then we heard from one of the people who was part of that reintroduction and is still working to ensure the comeback of the sturgeon is a success.”Ontario is blessed with decent numbers of sturgeon and they are coming back,” said Haxton.”It takes a long time for populations to rebound and we’re not seeing complete recovery over 100 years.”He says a full comeback of sturgeon has been hampered by pollution, log drives in years past and hydro dams that interrupt migration patterns.But given that sturgeon have remained largely unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs, Haxton says he’s “completely optimistic” they have a bright future, although he says “it will take a bit of management” given that “energy demands” in the years ahead will likely lead to more hydro dam development.How sturgeon adapt to those dams is the focus of research by Moose Cree First Nation and the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.Since 2016 they’ve been monitoring sturgeon movements in the Mattagami River and the North French River, one of the last “intact” systems without any hydroelectric projects.”There’s not a lot of good information on the populations, so it’s just assumed that they’re probably doing okay,” said program director Connie O’Connor. No one from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources was made available for an interview, but in a statement it says the sturgeon population in the James and Hudson Bay lowlands appears “to be the most robust in the province.”This was the first young sturgeon caught in the Upper Mattagami River in 2006, after some 50 adult sturgeon were relocated to the river in 2002. (Supplied/Laurent Robichaud)”However, subpopulations in the region are thought to be highly variable, and an understanding of population trends is limited to short sections of river,” the statement reads.”Given the species’ life history, including long generation time, meaningful changes in Lake Sturgeon populations may take decades to detect.”While Robichaud worries about how climate change will affect the recovery of sturgeon in the waters around Timmins, he says he can’t look away now, 30 years after first seeing that spawn. “All we can do now is watch the progress,” he said. “It’s been 21 years now. And we’re going to keep watching.”

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