Close-up on Kootenai Sturgeon Hatchery

By Scott Waltman
Aberdeen, South Dakota (AP) 11-09

A national television audience got a chance to see how a Webster native who works at an Idaho fish hatchery is helping save a species.

Chris Lewandowski and his peers at the Kootenai Tribal Sturgeon Hatchery in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, appeared on an episode of “Hooked: Monster Fish of America” on the National Geographic Channel.

A crew from the network visited the hatchery in the spring to see how the staff works to capture female white sturgeon that are ready to spawn.

Lewandowski, who graduated from Webster High School in 1991 and South Dakota State University in 1995, has been working at the hatchery since 1996. He said the Kootenai white sturgeon are on the endangered species list, and he estimated that there are only 800 to 1,000 of them in the river. Most of the fish are at least 40 years old, and while they do spawn, it appears the young fish aren’t surviving in the wild.

That’s where the hatchery comes in. Since the 1990s, workers have been capturing female sturgeon, gathering and hatching their eggs and raising the fish to 18 months of age. The young fish are then released to the river.

It looks like the project has worked well so far. He said an estimated 70 percent of young fish survive their first year in the wild. After that, there’s about a 5 percent mortality rate each year.

Even knowing that, though, it will be years before workers will know for sure whether their spawning project is a success. The white sturgeon live to be 100 years old and aren’t sexually mature until they’re about 25 or 30 years old. It will be 2020 or so before hatchery workers can tell if the fish population starts to sustain itself, Lewandowski said.

Lewandowski said he and others at the hatchery start looking in March for female fish that are ready to spawn. It can take a couple of months to find 10 fertile fish because adult females spawn only every four or five years in late May and early June, he said. There are probably only 40 or 50 white sturgeon in the river that spawn each year, he said.

Workers use casting rods with 50-pound test line and usually use rainbow trout 8 to 10 inches long as bait to catch the white sturgeon, Lewandowski said. Ones that aren’t spawning are tossed back.

The freshwater white sturgeon average 6 feet long, but can get as big as 12 feet and weigh as much as 500 pounds.

Lewandowski said a dam built along the river in 1973 hindered the white sturgeon population, which was likely decreasing beforehand. A second hatchery is in the works a bit upstream, he said. There, the riverbed has more gravel and rock – structures that are more apt to protect the sturgeon eggs. The riverbed is more clay and sand near Kootenai hatchery, he said.

That’s an important factor to consider because hatchery workers believe that the white sturgeon return to the place they were hatched to mate.

“Mother Nature’s pretty smart that way,” Lewandowski said. “If you’re hatched there and survive there, there’s something pretty good about that place.”

The Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency under the control of the U.S. Department of Energy, funds the hatchery’s work.

“I’m pretty proud of this program,” Lewandowski said. “So far, it looks like we’ll be able to save these things.”

Lewandowski, who has a wildlife and fisheries sciences degree from SDSU, is married and has four kids. He said he usually makes it back to the Webster area a couple of times a year, often to fish and hunt. His parents, Dennis and Letha Lewandowski, still live in rural Webster.