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Risky business

If sturgeon get listed as a species at risk, then billions in new dam construction will also be at risk

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If it wasn't already tough enough being the last few burly, bewhiskered sturgeon living in the Lower Nelson River, the endangered species is now in a public-policy pickle.

The fish's hometown river is seen as Manitoba's ticket to prosperity, the source of vast reserves of clean hydro power and the site of a planned $13-billion dam-building boom in the form of Keeyask and Conawapa.

Normally, new dams are the sturgeon's death knell.

This time, though, the construction of the Keeyask dam comes with millions of dollars and a broad plan to dramatically boost the sturgeon population along the Nelson, making up for generations of damage from past projects.

But that plan, and billions in new dam construction, could be kiboshed by an unlikely foe -- the federal Species at Risk Act.

Ottawa is about to decide whether to list sturgeon as an endangered or threatened species under the act, a move that comes with aggressive restrictions on development such as hydro dams, even if that development includes mitigation programs that ultimately have a positive net effect on an endangered species.

"As the legislation is written today, if sturgeon are listed, then there would be a significant risk that Keeyask could be jeopardized or at least would be delayed while things are sorted out," said Ed Wojczynski, head of Manitoba Hydro's portfolio projects management division and the point man on Keeyask.

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By the time Hydro began building dams along the lower Nelson in the '60s and '70s, sturgeon populations had already been decimated by generations of overfishing, mostly by commercial fisheries that followed the construction of the railway through the north. The fish was a huge money-maker and there were so many, they were almost wasted. At one point, before the fish population crashed, steamships that travelled along the Red River burned sturgeon oil for power.

The dams made things even worse for the fish.

By design, dams are built over rapids or drops in the river, which is exactly where sturgeon spawn. Sturgeon favour shallow, often whitewater rapids for releasing and fertilizing their eggs because the fast water allows eggs to get enough oxygen before they sink to the bottom, to the rocks or sand, to mature.

Not only are dams often built over exactly these kinds of rapids, flooding upstream causes other rapids to disappear under high water.

That's what will happen at Keeyask, the province's next mega-dam project slated to start construction in 2014. The 695-megawatt dam is being built on top of Gull Rapids, a major sturgeon spawning ground.

Or it would be a major spawning ground if there were many sturgeon left in that region of the Lower Nelson River. In Stephens Lake east of the dam, there are very few fish left.

On the west side of the dam, in Gull Lake and along the river, the sturgeon population is slightly healthier but there are still only about 500 fish left there.

When Keeyask is built, it could also flood another set of rapids upstream, the Birthday Rapids, where sturgeon also spawn.

But, in partnership with the four First Nations whose reserves and traditional lands are affected by the flooding, Hydro is working on a plan that will help kick-start the sturgeon into recovery.

The cash that comes with the dam -- millions in compensation payments to the bands and the environmental-mitigation programs -- means sturgeon might take a great leap forward.

"We're designing a mitigation package for sturgeon that's going overboard," said John Whitaker, a veteran fish biologist and an environmental adviser to Tataskweyak Cree Nation.

"It's dealing with more than the impact of Keeyask. We're trying to address the impact of past hydro dams."

First, Hydro will recreate spawning grounds, a fix that has worked well for Hydro-Québec but has never been tried on the Nelson.

That involves building shallow rapids just downstream of the powerhouse by strategically placing boulders, rocks and gravel to recreate the right speed of water flow and the right kind of whitewater. Hydro is committed to doing the same at Birthday Rapids on the west side, if those rapids are too badly flooded.

But if good spawning grounds were enough, sturgeon populations would have rebounded on their own in recent years. That hasn't happened.

The only way to bring the population up again is by stocking the lake with thousands of young sturgeon born in a hatchery such as the one that exists in Grand Rapids and helps bolster the fish population in the upper Nelson River.

It's pretty easy to raise sturgeon in a hatchery -- there's even a small one in the old Manitoba Hydro building on Taylor Avenue. Unlike some fish, sturgeon happily eat prepared food, and toddlers survive very well when they're released, especially if they're allowed to reach a year old. The hatchery would be located in the Keeyask region and would also provide jobs for First Nations partners.

The goal is to get the sturgeon population back to a level where they are self-sustaining, where there are enough fish to allow First Nations, who have all but suspended their traditional fishing rights, to again use the sturgeon for sustenance and ceremonies. The target number is now under development by Hydro and the First Nations.

Any way you slice it, the sturgeon's renaissance will take decades and include monitoring fish with radio-frequency tags and tweaking spawning grounds and the stocking program to get the biggest population bang.

There is also a plan to deal with the mysterious question of whether sturgeon will try to swim through the dam's turbines -- a voyage many fish survive -- or whether they will be content to remain in complete habitats on either side.

"We'll do whatever it takes to make it work," said Wojczynski.

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But Manitoba's plan to rescue the Nelson River sturgeon could be endangered by the very legislation meant to protect the province's most famous fish.

Lake sturgeon are already listed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, an advisory body of experts.

Now, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is considering whether to follow the committee's lead and protect sturgeon formally by listing it in the Species at Risk Act (SARA). The listing process involves several years of research and consultation. If sturgeon are listed, it becomes an offence to kill or harm them, or do anything to damage their habitat. That could effectively stymie the next generation of Manitoba Hydro dams, says Wojczynski, because the dam will destroy the Gull Rapids and almost certainly harm existing fish.

In British Columbia, a dam project was delayed after just one sturgeon was found damaged by the turbines. The same regulatory delays could happen in Manitoba.

But Hydro think that's an unlikely outcome, that there is some flexibility in the SARA process, a process Hydro is quick to call very worthwhile.

First, research done by Manitoba Hydro and as part of the SARA process has found sturgeon are in better shape than originally thought. There are pockets, including in Stephens Lake, where populations are shamefully low, but in other locations across Manitoba, populations are healthier than expected, thanks in part to local stocking programs.

And, if Manitoba Hydro commits to a binding, decades-long program of stocking and habitat improvements along the Nelson River, that could help convince Fisheries to allow Keeyask and later Conawapa to go ahead.

Ottawa is expected to decide later this year or early next year whether to list sturgeon under the Species at Risk Act.

 

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 19, 2012 J16

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