Despite evidence of annual spawning by white sturgeon Acipenser transmontanus in rivers of the northwestern United States and Canada, in some years and locations little or no recruitment of age-0 white sturgeon has been observed. We examined the vulnerability of white sturgeon larvae and juveniles to predation to further understand possible causes of mortality. We were particularly interested in the vulnerability of older larvae and juveniles because at about 25 mm total length (TL) white sturgeon develop sharp dorsal and lateral scutes that may act as a morphological defense. In the laboratory, white sturgeon ranging from newly hatched larvae to about 170-mm TL juveniles were exposed to predatory fishes they might encounter in the natural environment. We found that channel catfish Ictalurus punctatus (mean TL = 464 mm) and northern pikeminnow Ptychocheilus oregonensis (mean TL = 472 mm) ate white sturgeon up to mean sizes of 121 and 134 mm TL, respectively. Conversely, similarly sized walleyes Sander vitreus ingested almost no white sturgeon, although juvenile walleyes (mean TL = 184 mm) ate white sturgeon up to 59 mm TL. The smallest predator we tested, prickly sculpins Cottus asper (mean TL = 126 mm), ate white sturgeon up to a mean TL of 50 mm. Our study demonstrated that predation is a likely cause of mortality of age-0 white sturgeon and may be contributing to the year-class failures that have been observed. In addition, the results from this study could be used to reduce the predation risk of artificially propagated white sturgeon released to augment declining populations since fish could be reared to sizes where their vulnerability is low.
Additional publication details
Laboratory studies on the vulnerability of young white sturgeon to predation