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Recovery Strategy for the Atlantic Whitefish
The Atlantic whitefish, Coregonus huntsmani (Scott 1987), is an endemic Canadian species known historically only in the Tusket River and Petite Rivière watersheds in southwestern Nova Scotia (Figure 1). Once an anadromous species, it is now believed to be extirpated from the Tusket River (Figure 2) and entirely land-locked within three small semi-natural lakes (1600 total hectares) in the upper Petite Rivière drainage (Figure 3). Atlantic whitefish are not found anywhere else in the world and the exact size of the remaining population is not known.
The species has historically supported fisheries in the Tusket and Petite watersheds and is the sole representative of a unique lineage of whitefish in North America; it is therefore an important component of biodiversity in Canada. A pronounced population decline in recent decades resulted in the species being assessed as “endangered” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC in 1984; this status was re-confirmed by COSEWIC in 2000).
Knowledge of which environmental/ecological factors have contributed to the decline and continued low abundance of Atlantic whitefish is imprecise. However, acidification of the aquatic habitat as a result of acid rain has occurred throughout the known range for the species, fish habitat has been altered as a result of human land and watercourse use (in particular the construction and operation of dams and associated fishways) and non-indigenous fish predators (including smallmouth bass and chain pickerel) have been introduced illegally into the watersheds. These factors, as well as unregulated, excessive harvesting in the past, are believed to be the principle contributing factors to the species’ decline.
In June 2003, Canada passed its Species at Risk Act (SARA). SARA was created to prevent Canadian wildlife species from becoming extinct and to help species at risk recover to sustainable levels. With the coming into force of SARA, the Atlantic whitefish, recognized as being threatened with imminent extinction, was automatically listed as Endangered under Schedule 1 of SARA, which requires legal protection and mandatory recovery plans for listed species.
Protection under the Act prohibits the killing, harming, harassing, capturing or taking of individuals and also makes it illegal to damage or destroy their residence and provides protection for critical habitat once identified in a recovery strategy or action plan. While the state of knowledge on habitat requirements of Atlantic whitefish is increasing as new scientific evidence becomes available, it is currently not possible to identify critical habitat for Atlantic whitefish and thus it will wait to be designated at a later stage in an action plan. Appendix II however includes a list of research and monitoring activities that collectively, constitute a schedule of studies which describes the activities that are needed to help define the critical habitat for this species.
Although the prohibitions associated with SARA protect Atlantic whitefish, SARA however enables recovery strategies to exempt persons engaging in certain activities from these general prohibitions. In November 2004, DFO Maritimes Region hosted a Regional Advisory Process review to assess the level of mortality that would not jeopardize the survival or recovery of the species. The conclusion from the meeting was that there are no indications that current human activities within the Petite Rivière drainage pose a threat to the survival of Atlantic whitefish; however there may not be scope for further harm arising from new activities or proposed changes to existing activities. Furthermore, there is no certainty that harm from current human activities will remain low once smallmouth bass have become established in the Petite Rivière drainage. The allowable harm assessment could not address whether current activities jeopardize the recovery of Atlantic whitefish largely owing to a lack of prior knowledge concerning the biology of the species outside the current area of known occupancy. These can only become known as recovery actions are implemented.
A key requirement under this new legislation is the development of recovery strategies which detail the specific steps that need to be taken in order to protect and recover the species. This recovery strategy has been prepared in cooperation with the Atlantic Whitefish Conservation and Recovery Team (AWCRT). Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources (NSDNR), and the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (NSDAF) have legislative responsibilities for recovery of this species.
This recovery strategy identifies the goal, objectives and recommended strategies that are believed necessary to protect and recover Atlantic whitefish. In brief, the goal of the recovery strategy is to:
”Achieve stability in the current population of Atlantic whitefish in Nova Scotia, reestablishment of the anadromous form, and expansion beyond its current range.”
The supporting objectives outline the need to:
- Conserve, protect and manage the species and its habitat;
- Increase the number and range of viable populations;
- Increase understanding of the species and its habitat, and;
- Increase public involvement and acceptance.
Given their unique attributes, the imminent danger of Atlantic whitefish becoming extinct adds weight to the importance of implementing recovery. Some of the specific initiatives for recovery have already begun. Extending the range of Atlantic whitefish is an important component of recovery for this species. Efforts to extend the species’ range by establishing back-up populations are currently underway. As part of a three-year trial project, captive reared Atlantic whitefish have already been released into Anderson Lake, near Burnside, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, in November 2005 and April 2006. As the success of this introduction will not be known for several years, from this point forward this Recovery Strategy will focus its consideration on the historic populations, and will discuss the recovery efforts at Anderson Lake specifically in Section 2.8.
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