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Radio host finds a monster in WV

Threatened fish a lesson in natural history

JUST when you thought it was safe to go swimming in West Vancouver . . . along comes a massive, prehistoric fish to throw a bony dorsal fin at the plan.

This was driven home for Grant Lawrence, a CBC radio host, when he came face-to-face with one of the most ancient creatures to inhabit local waters as he prepared to take a dip near Dundarave early this week.

Lawrence was visiting his parents' waterfront home and was about to go swimming when his nephew started screaming, "There's a shark."

"I thought they were just fooling with me," said Lawrence. "Then I see this massive creature in the water."

The creature - which was also, notably, dead and floating belly up - did look like a shark, said Lawrence.

"The thing was seven or eight feet long," he said. "It had a huge head the size of a large watermelon."

As it washed ashore, Lawrence turned the fish over with a stick and found himself staring at something "with a body that looked like a Jurassic eel," with brown mottled skin and a long, jagged dorsal fin.

"It was like we were transported back to the Land of the Lost or something," he said.

Not knowing what it was, Lawrence turned to Twitter, where he posted a photo of the fish asking people to identify his find. Within a few minutes people started tweeting him back, identifying the fish as a sturgeon.

"A lot of people were really excited about it," he said.

Rather than a sea monster, Lawrence and his nephews had stumbled upon one of the more interesting pieces of B.C.'s natural history.

The sturgeon, the world's largest freshwater fish, has been around since the time of the dinosaurs. They can grow up to 20 feet in length and live up to 150 years.

Females don't reach maturity until 25 or 30 years old, and might spawn only once or twice every six to 10 years.

The white sturgeon that live in the nearby Fraser River have a long history tied to the province.

At the turn of the century, "it was a major fishery," said Sarah Schreier, executive director of the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society. "It was a real cornerstone for the growth of the province."

But the result of that industry was to "essentially clear cut the stock," she said. The population of ancient sturgeon crashed.

Today, the conservation society is involved in an intensive program of monitoring the sturgeon population, including a tagging program that has currently tagged about 50,000 fish.

Listed as a "threatened" species, the white sturgeon is part of a catch-and-release only sport fishery on the Fraser.

Habitat erosion and illegal poaching remain the biggest threats to the species, said Schreier.

Interestingly, while the sturgeon were once thought to stay in fresh water throughout their lives, the monitoring and tagging program has revealed the massive fish do spend time in the ocean as well. That discovery has only been made in the past three years, said Schreier.

She encourages anyone who spots a sturgeon in the ocean to let the society know, so it can be examined for a tag and tracked as part of the monitoring program.

Most people are enthused about seeing a sturgeon. "It's an encounter with a dinosaur," said Schreier.

Lawrence agrees it was pretty cool to come face to face with a prehistoric creature.

The encounter will likely make it into an episode of Lawrence's "The Wild Side" radio show, which focuses on unusual run-ins with the wild kingdom on Tuesday mornings and Friday evenings on CBC Radio 1.

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