Connected to the Fisheries and Aquaculture department is VIU’s brand new International Centre for Sturgeon Studies. The Centre is intended to be a state-of-the-art lab facility and field research base for scientists from around the world. The Director of the Centre is Don Tillapaugh, and back in Sept. Technician Dave Switzer gave me a tour of the facility.
Sturgeon are a predatory fish that can live up to 150 years and grow up to seven feet long. According to VIU’s Sturgeon Centre website, they have survived for over 200 million years, outliving the dinosaurs. However, over the last 100 years that has changed, and now sturgeon everywhere are on the cusp of extinction. There are 28 species of sturgeon, and the largest white sturgeon ever found was 20 feet long. As recently as Sept. 25 a giant sturgeon was caught in the Fraser River. More than 3.5 metres long and weighing in at over 500kg, the fish is one of the largest ever caught in the area. Sturgeon don’t see well as they don’t need to in a river like the Fraser where they wouldn’t be able to see far through the water anyway. They taste and smell their way through the water and have a lateralizing system, like a shark. They eat off the bottom, but they are also an aggressive top predator: they will just open their mouth and swallow smaller fish.
The Sturgeon Centre will draw researchers from around the world to VIU “since most species are endangered or at risk, it’s very difficult to get fish to do research with.” Switzer says, “It will give people from other countries the opportunity to come here. They can do research and apply it to the species they will be working with back home.” Members of the department will also be doing their own research through the facility.
While the building has been completed, the large fish have yet to be moved inside. Currently, they are housed in large tanks in a greenhouse next to the new building.
The Seventh International Symposium on Sturgeon (ISS7) will be held at VIU in July 2013, and while construction of the new Centre for Sturgeon Research has been completed, the interior is still a work in progress with a tight time frame to have everything completed for the conference. There was also a North American conference held here last summer with about 300 delegates that Switzer says went well.
The new building will make the fish much more secure. Sturgeon are valuable fish and the new tanks will provide them with an environment for which there will be more control over lighting, temperature, and food. More control over more factors means better results for both the fish and the research. “Where our large fish are now, the building is a greenhouse.” Switzer says that the new building is also much more biosecure. Those entering the rooms housing the sturgeon have to walk through disinfectant as an added precaution to protect fish health, as there are other fish on campus from other hatcheries. Switzer showed me a room housing research fish, where each tank has its own temperature control and water source. Water is never cross-contaminated with other buildings. There are currently about 800 fish in the one room while the tank systems in the bigger rooms are still under construction.
Various research rooms will be separate specific spaces for larval research, smaller fish research, and larger fish research.
I thought that the 12year-olds were large elegant creatures, but Switzer called them just “decent-size fish.” I soon found out why.
On average sturgeon get to 100–150 years old. “If conditions are right and they don’t have a very stressful life, they’ll grow huge.” Switzer wasn’t exaggerating. The tour concluded with a visit to the old greenhouse where the big fish live. In a tank there are eight of the large fish: four males and four females. The gender is determined by a surgery to look at the animal’s gonads; however, Switzer is working on an ultrasound technique in order to sex the fish without invasive surgery. The technique has worked with the 12-year-olds, and Switzer plans to refine the technique for younger fish. They’re not 100 percent sure of the ages of the largest fish on campus—one male is over seven feet. These fish could be anywhere from 30–50 years old, or even older. Some of them came from a backyard pond where they were being held illegally. The original owners likely didn’t know what they were getting into by raising sturgeon in their backyard ponds. Two larger sturgeon, over nine feet, had been sent to a pond at a hatchery on the mainland.