Game and Fish stocks lake sturgeon fingerlings into the Pembina River

Sep. 15—NEAR WALHALLA, N.D. — The North Dakota Game and Fish Department stocked 1,000 fingerling lake sturgeon into the Pembina River this week as part of ongoing efforts to restore the species to the Red River watershed.

According to Scott Gangl, fisheries management section leader for Game and Fish in Bismarck, the 6- to 8-inch fingerlings were stocked Tuesday at three sites along the Pembina River upstream from Walhalla, North Dakota. The stocking, Gangl said, was done in anticipation of a project to modify an existing low head dam on the Pembina River, near the confluence of the Red River in Pembina, North Dakota, into a rock rapids fishway.

Similar to the near-complete rock rapids fishway on the Red River near Drayton, North Dakota, but on a much smaller scale, the design would allow fish to pass upstream from the Pembina City Dam while retaining the dam's water storage function. The Drayton Dam is the last of eight low head dams on the mainstem Red River to be modified into a rock rapids fishway.

Plans to modify the Pembina dam are still in the early stages, Gangl said, but the department wanted to get a jump-start on stocking because lake sturgeon take so long to mature.

The long-lived fish, which can live more than 100 years and exceed 200 pounds, don't reach sexual maturity until their late teens to mid 20s and even then don't spawn every year.

"We wanted to establish the population (in the Pembina River) instead of waiting until everything was done," Gangl said.

Once abundant in the Red River Basin, lake sturgeon were all but wiped out by the early 1920s, the result of factors such as pollution and the construction of low head dams that blocked access to crucial spawning habitat. Sturgeon recovery efforts have been underway across the Red River Basin since the early 1990s, and the first verified sturgeon spawning run in more than 100 years was observed in May 2021 in the upper Otter Tail River, a Red River tributary.

The video clip below documenting that spawning run is two years old.

Game and Fish worked with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to secure eggs from Rainy River sturgeon for the stocking effort, Gangl said. The sturgeon were raised to fingerling size at the Valley City National Fish Hatchery.

"It's going to be some of the same (genetic) stock that's been introduced into the Red River drainage over the years," he said.

Historical records document lake sturgeon in the Pembina River all the way up into Manitoba, Gangl said.

"They could have been in practically all of our tributaries," he said.

The Roseau River, which originates in Beltrami Island State Forest in northwest Minnesota and flows into the Red River in Manitoba, is among the tributaries that sturgeon inhabited historically. The largest lake sturgeon ever recorded, which measured 15 1/2 feet long and weighed 406 pounds, came from the Roseau River. The fish was caught Oct. 27, 1903, near Dominion City, Manitoba, and was aged at 150 years old, according to the Manitoba Historical Society website.