Muddy Boots is our internal blog where our staff members share experiences getting their boots muddy with on-the-ground conservation research! You can find our contributions to external blogs and Op Eds here.
They call me a living fossil. I call myself a survivor. I have been swimming in this river longer than many of you have been alive. I travel hundreds of kilometers each year and know the best places to lay my eggs when the time comes every few years – or sometimes only once every decade. Meanwhile, I hunt for food – crayfish, snails, clams, and leeches – along the bottom of lakes and rivers using my suction mouth. I use my sense of smell more than my eyes, using my corkscrew shaped nostrils and the “barbels” that hang from my snout – along with my ability to sense electromagnetic fields (call it my Spidey senses) – to find my food.
I’m big. Close to 30 kg and well over a metre long. But before European colonization, we were even bigger. One of us found in Manitoba was 185 kg and 4.6 metres long. That’s a big fish!
Field technician Jacob Seguin holds namew (Cree for lake sturgeon). These fish have a remarkable story to tell about resilience and adaptation. ©WCS Canada
There used to be so many of us we were sometimes called “the buffalo of the water.” Folks claimed lake sturgeon were so abundant in the Great Lakes they could upset boats when they schooled. Sadly, those days are long gone. Some of the early European settlers decided we were a nuisance, since we sometimes ripped up fishing nets with our powerful and raspy bodies, and they decided we were more useful for everything from our eggs (local caviar) to isinglass from our swim bladders that was used to make beer.
Lucky for me, I was born in the North French River watershed (Kah-pana-yow Sîpi or Meh-ko-pwa-meh-ŝtik Sîpi in Cree) a long way from most people except for the local Indigenous peoples who understand our ways and call us namew (sometimes spelled namêw or namayo). The waters in the rivers here flow into Moose River, near the shores of James Bay. Cold, fresh, clear. All of the waters of the Moose River basin once flowed freely, but then the dam builders came to many of the rivers that flow into the Moose River – the Abitibi River, the Kapuskasing River, the Groundhog River, the Mattagami River. I remember the huge changes they made to the river – reducing its flow, changing water levels, clearing and blasting riverbeds, and silting over spawning beds. Now the North French River is one of the only watersheds left without dams and culverts that block the water.
The free flowing waters of the North French river. © Meg Southee/WCS Canada
I was young back then – only in my first decade. Now I am approaching 70. That’s pretty darn old for a fish. Those lake trout think they are long lived, and they aren’t around for much more than five years! The oldest sturgeon found in Canada was 155 years old (you can only tell our age by counting the rings in the cartilage of our pectoral fins). Of course, being so long lived, we don’t rush into anything. We females don’t usually mature and lay eggs for the first time until our 20s; the boys mature at 8-12, but some of them aren’t really mature until their 20s as well.
But that’s not why they call us dinosaur fish. That nickname comes from the fact that we still closely resemble fish found in fossils from the Upper Cretaceous Period – 100 million years ago. Our ancestors were swimming when dinosaurs were around! We haven’t changed a whole lot since then. We still have skeletons made of cartilage instead of bones (which is why some people say we are kind of like sharks), and we have bony platelets instead of scales along our bodies. It’s these “scutes” – little spiney bumps that are most prominent on our young fish – that give our skin a sandpaper feel. Maybe that’s why we’re so tough!
Take a look at these scutes on this young sturgeon from the Winnipeg River! © WCS Canada
But we’re not just old crusty types. We’re actually known to be a bit playful, and we like to stand on our tails and “walk” backwards and jump out of the water and twirl around like dolphins, especially in summer.
I live in a pretty special place. The North French River watershed is part of a globally important boreal region that stretches across a huge area of the far north in Ontario. You can still find a fair number of sturgeon around here thanks to the remoteness of the rivers – and outside of the Moose River basin, almost all of them still fortunately run free – and the care we have been shown by local Indigenous communities. But we’re all getting a bit worried because there is a lot of talk about things changing even more.
Our home is next to something called “the Ring of Fire” – an interesting geological formation that a lot of people think has a lot of valuable minerals in it. It’s a very remote area, but there is serious interest in developing new mines to get at metals like nickel and chromite. And those mines are going to need roads and powerlines to operate. The combination could lead to big changes in our waters, from contaminants flowing in from mine sites and changes to water levels to blockages caused by road crossings. That’s a big deal because we sturgeon are migratory – upriver to spawn, downriver to eat, rest and get ready to breed again.
And roads always mean more people. Non-Indigenous people can’t fish for sturgeon in Ontario (we’re considered an “at risk” species, even way up here), but people have a way of affecting things, whether it is creating erosion and oily dust that gets into waterways or bringing in baitfish or other invasive species that upset the ecological balance.
We’ve also noticed things are getting a lot warmer. Winter is a lot less predictable and that is causing big problems for us and the communities around us. Right now, water levels in our rivers are at near record lows. That’s not good for fish or people. I’ve been around long enough to know when something is just part of the natural cycle and when something is fundamentally changing – like when they built those dams. My barbels are tingling, and telling me that we are going to have to deal with big climate changes that may make life a lot harder for a species that has already been through a lot.
And our home is not just rich in clear waters and vast forests; it is also packed with carbon, deep in the soil, called peatlands or muskeg. I’ve heard that by keeping this carbon deep in the muskeg rather than out in the atmosphere, we can keep the climate from changing too much. So caring for this landscape has never been more important.
The WCS Canada freshwater team gets to work in the most beautiful places! Note the globally-important boreal forests of Northern Ontario pictured here in the background. © Meg Southee/WCS Canada
For an ancient fish, some of us are pretty high tech. We have been fitted with transmitters to help scientists from WCS Canada and the Moose Cree resource protection team track our movements. They want to learn more about where we are going in this vast remote watershed, so they can show governments and companies which areas are most important to us. They also want to see what we do around those dams, and how we are coping with warming waters.
The MCFN Resource Protection and WCS Canada team can track our movements by carefully implanting transponders into us. © Meg Southee/WCS Canada
We’re happy to help. It could help us a lot if the story that this research tells helps to convince the big shots that we need to plan carefully to protect these waters, before calling in the drills and bulldozers to go after those minerals.
What’s really exciting is the interest that youth from the local Moose Cree community are taking in our welfare. Our offspring could grow up and grow old with them, so it is critical that we have a new generation of Guardians for this watershed. Their elders are teaching them about the ways of namew, and even about what the rivers were like before the dams. This is critical knowledge if we want to keep these waters drinkable, fishable, and healthy. Moose Cree water Guardians have a lot to say (and do!) about protecting namew and nipiy (water) in their homeland.
Moose Cree youth gain hands-on field experience while accompanying WCS Canada and MCFN Resource Protection Unit researchers in maintaining underwater acoustic telemetry receivers in the Lower Mattagami river. © Claire Farrell/WCS Canada
I hope your children will meet my children some day, but that is only going to have a chance of happening if we take good care of special places like this.
Photo credits: Banner | Lila Tauzer © WCS Canada