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Of Sturgeon and Hydro Québec

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Issue: 32 Section: Food Geography: North, Quebec Topics: fisheries, food security

December 9, 2005

Of Sturgeon and Hydro Québec

Food from the rivers we are losing

by Carole Ferrari

Illustration by Sylvia Nickerson
On Saturday, November the 5th, 2005, Hydro Quebec flooded another 600 square kilometres of James Bay territory to fill in a new reservoir across the Eastmain River. Hydro-electric development has destroyed the Eastmain river and with it the spawning grounds of the fish that used to swim there, including the lake sturgeon.

The sturgeon has been called "the most valuable fish in the world." Its eggs, or caviar, sell for an astonishing $7,000 a kilo. Around the world, caviar is considered a culinary delicacy and an aphrodisiac. But there's a lot more to sturgeons than their economic value and powers to increase human sexual confidence.

Sturgeons are known to be friendly and to actually like humans; they seem to enjoy human presence. They grow slowly - lake sturgeons grow to be a metre long - taking seven to eight years to reach sexual maturity. And they eat slowly. They dine on the bottom of lakes, riverbeds and oceans, tasting their way across the muddy bottoms feasting on insect larvae, worms, crayfish, snails, and other small fish as they migrate up to their spawning beds.

The species of sturgeon that inhabited the Eastmain is likely as old as the river itself. The life span of a sturgeon is anywhere from 50 to 150 years long, but sturgeons as a species are so old they knew the dinosaurs. The species is thought to be 80 million years old. They are called living fossils and act as a vital link to our pre-historic past.

Almost all kinds of sturgeon are endangered because of over-fishing, water pollution and hydroelectic development. HydroQuebec is trying to develop new spawning runs for the sturgeon and other fish whose spawning grounds have been destroyed by the Eastmain dam. But previous dam and dike developments for hydroelectricity in the James Bay have lead to unhealthy levels of mercury in the fish in the area.

This sturgeon recipe is an old one from Miss Leslie's Directions for Cookery. Written by Eliza Leslie the cookbook was first published in 1837. I chose this recipe because it is simple and I imagine it to be best enjoyed somewhere between the 51st and 54th parallel, cooked on an open fire near the shores of a mighty river, the way sturgeon was probably enjoyed by the James Bay Cree for so many thousands of years.

Carefully take off the sturgeon's skin, as its oiliness will give the fish a strong and disagreeable taste when cooked. Cut from the tail-piece slices about half an inch thick, rub them with salt, and broil them over a clear fire of bright coals. Butter them, sprinkle them with cayenne pepper, and send them to table hot, garnished with sliced lemon. Squeeze lemon over the fish before eating.

According to Environmental Defense's Oceans Alive, the most eco-friendly sturgeon to eat for its meat and for its caviar is farmed white sturgeon from the Pacific coast.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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