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Researchers study 507-pound Columbia sturgeon near Northport.

Researchers study 507-pound Columbia sturgeon near Northport.

Tribal and state fisheries researchers landed a big incentive this fall to continue their work on reviving white sturgeon numbers in the Columbia River upstream from Kettle Falls.

A sturgeon, 9 feet long and weighing 507 pounds, was captured and released by Colville Confederated Tribes fisheries staff in September near Northport.

"A rough guess, but it's somewhere between 60 and 80 years old," said Jason McLellan, fisheries researcher for the tribe.

The Colvilles and Spokane Tribe have been working with the state Fish and Wildlife Department since 2003 to study Lake Roosevelt sturgeon and try to boost their numbers, which have been impacted by the region's dams and their operations.

About 4,000 yearling sturgeons are released each year in hopes they will survive in the free-flowing waters starting near Kettle Falls upstream to Keenleyside Dam near Castlegar, British Columbia.

The 6- to 10-inch fish are raised at Sherman Creek Hatchery from wild-produced sturgeon larvae caught in plankton nets about two weeks after they hatch in the Columbia.

The annual spring and fall surveys attempt to estimate abundance and survival by tracking and surveying the released fish, which are tagged with tiny transmitters, said Chuck Lee, sturgeon project coordinator for WDFW.

So far, virtually no wild sturgeons produced in the river are surviving to juvenile ages, McLellan said.

"Most of the wild fish we survey are 30 years old or older," he said. "That was the last strong year class of sturgeon."

That was about the time Columbia River tributary storage dams were completed, including Hungry Horse and Libby dams among others, he said.

"We have a lot to learn," he said.

The big sturgeon caught and released in September is very rare, but not the largest the researchers have netted.

"The biggest was 11 feet fork length we caught some years ago - too big to weigh with the equipment we had at the time," he said.

"We actually don't like to catch the big ones that are out there. We have hydraulic lift and slings, but we still don't want to handle them if we don't have to."

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