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Recovery Strategy for the Atlantic Whitefish

1. Background

1.1 Status

1.1.1 Canadian Status

COSEWIC Assessment Summary

Common name : Atlantic whitefish

Scientific name: Coregonus huntsmani

Status: Endangered

Occurrence: Nova Scotia.

Reason for Designation : This species, endemic to Nova Scotia, is found only in the Tusket 1 and Petite Rivière watersheds. It continues to decline because of habitat loss and degradation caused by acidification, hydroelectric dams, introductions of exotic species, and incidental fishing.
Status History: Designated Endangered in April 1984. Status re-examined and confirmed in November 2000. Last assessment based on an updated status report.

1 subsequently considered extirpated from the Tusket River (Bradford et al. 2004a)

1.1.2 Global Status

In 1996 the Atlantic whitefish was globally assessed as Vulnerable by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). It is listed in the IUCN Red Book with the designation VU D2, which implies the species is not endangered but facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future [1]. The 1996 designation indicated that the population is very small and is characterized by an acute restriction in its area of occupancy.

1.2 Distribution

1.2.1 Global Range

The Atlantic whitefish is endemic to Nova Scotia, meaning that it is found nowhere else in the world. In Nova Scotia it was historically found only in the Tusket and Petite Rivière watersheds, and their adjacent estuaries and bays (Figure 1). This species was extirpated from the Tusket River system sometime after 1982 (Bradford et al. 2004a).

Figure 1. Map showing the historical Canadian watershed distribution of Atlantic whitefish.

Figure 1. Map showing the historical Canadian watershed distribution of Atlantic whitefish. [2]

Despite extensive commercial and recreational fisheries in fresh and coastal waters throughout Nova Scotia, as well as extensive province-wide fish surveys, Atlantic whitefish populations have not been reported outside these two watersheds. Isolated captures of specimens identified as Atlantic whitefish were reported at the mouth of the Sissiboo River in southwestern Nova Scotia in 1919 (Scott and Scott 1988), at Halls Harbour on the Minas Channel in 1958 (Edge and Gilhen 2001) and in the LaHave Estuary in 1995 and 1997 (Edge and Gilhen 2001). These specimens may have been members of the Tusket or Petite populations.

1.2.2 TusketRiverWatershed

The Tusket River population of Atlantic whitefish appears to have been entirely anadromous. They have not been recorded in the watershed since 1982. The population is now considered to be extirpated (Bradford et al. 2004a).

Figure 2. Tusket-Annis rivers watershed and estuary.

Figure 2. Tusket-Annis rivers watershed and estuary.

 Occurrences were recorded in the non-tidal lower portions of both the Tusket River and the Annis River, as well as in the estuary that these two rivers share. Individuals have also been reported in Yarmouth Harbour located several kilometers to the west of the Tusket River (Figure 2). There is no information concerning the distance ascended by Atlantic whitefish in either the Tusket or Annis rivers (Bradford et al. 2004a; Figure 2).

1.2.3 Petite Rivière Whatershed   

The Petite Rivière system supports a significant resident Atlantic whitefish population distributed among three lakes: Minamkeak, Milipsigate and Hebb (Edge and Gilhen 2001; Figure 3).  The lakes, which collectively cover a surface area of barely more than 16.0 km2, cannot be accessed from the sea since the dam at Hebbville (Figure 3) is a complete barrier to upstream fish passage.  The first confirmed specimen of Atlantic whitefish was found at the outlet from Milipsigate Lake in 1923 (Piers 1927). 

There is no documented record of an anadromous run of Atlantic whitefish on the Petite Rivière prior to or after the construction of the dams on the Petite system.  Since the construction of the dams, there have been reported occurrences of Atlantic whitefish below the lakes in Fancy Lake, and in the tidal portions of the Petite Rivière (Figure 3).  As resident populations were not found in any recent surveys of the lakes below the dams (Bradford et al. 2004a), it is presumed that these fish somehow passed or were swept over the Hebbville dam and moved from there into downstream areas.  There is no evidence to document this movement over the dam, including when or at what age Atlantic whitefish might pass over it.  Specimens, that are also likely strays from the lake-resident population (Bradford et al. 2004a), have been captured in the LaHave River estuary (Edge and Gilhen 2001) which lies to the east of the Petite Rivière (Figure 3).

The presence of Atlantic whitefish in Minamkeak Lake has particular significance in light of the 1903 diversion of this lake from the Medway River (Figure 3) to the Petite Rivière (Edge and Gilhen 2001).  Recent surveys showed that Atlantic whitefish are not resident within the Medway River, including the sub-drainage into which Minamkeak once drained (Bradford et al. 2004a). Presence of Atlantic whitefish in Minamkeak Lake is likely a consequence of colonization from Milipsigate and Hebb lakes sometime after the diversion (Bradford et al. 2004a).

1.3 Legal Protection

Atlantic whitefish are listed under Schedule 1, Part 2 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) and therefore, the SARA provisions against the killing, harming, harassing, capturing or taking of individuals (SARA Section 32), and the damage or destruction of residence (SARA Section 33) applies directly to this species. Information on Atlantic whitefish life history and habitat use are insufficient at this time to provide a rationale for a residence description.  

Figure 3. Petite Rivière watershed and Green Bay estuary.

Figure 3. Petite Rivière watershed and Green Bay estuary.

Once the species’ critical habitat is legally identified, the prohibitions against its destruction will apply (SARA Section 58).

In addition to SARA, the Fisheries Act and its supporting regulations have direct and/or indirect application to Atlantic whitefish.  The Fisheries Act protects fish and fish habitat, whilst its supporting regulations (the Fishery (General) Regulations (F(G)R’s), the Maritime Provinces Fishery Regulations (MPFR’s), the Atlantic Fishery Regulations, 1985 (AFR’s), and the Aboriginal Communal Fishing Licences Regulations (ACFLR’s))  provide the tools to protect, conserve and manage fisheries.

With respect to fisheries, three of the most important regulatory provisions are;

  1. section 6 of the MPFR’s which prohibits the retention or possession of Atlantic whitefish,
  2. section 6 of the F(G)R’s which provides for the issue of variation orders to close any fishing season set out in regulations, and;
  3. section 22 of the F(G)R’s which provides for the issue of licence conditions.

After discussions with stakeholders, DFO and the Province have agreed to implement additional management measures on the Petite Rivière to protect Atlantic whitefish, primarily from incidental capture.  By variation order, all angling is now prohibited annually from April 1 to June 30 in the inland waters of Minamkeak, Milipsigate and Hebb lakes (Figure 3), including the thoroughfares joining them.  Commencing in 2005, only unbaited lures and artificial flies (no bait) are permitted during the open angling season from July 1 to September 30. One commercial gaspereau gill net licence holder in the estuary of the Petite Rivière was required, by licence condition, to relocate his fishing gear.

With respect to the protection of fish and fish habitat, some important regulatory provisions of the Fisheries Act include:

  1. section 20 - 22 which deal with requirements for fish passage and the construction of fish-ways;
  2. section 32 which prohibits the destruction of fish by means other than fishing unless authorized by the Minister;
  3. section 35(2) which prohibits the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat unless authorized by the Minister, and;
  4. section 36(3) which prohibits the deposition of deleterious substances into waters frequented by fish.

These sections of the Fisheries Act are administered by DFO, with the exception of section 36 which is administered by Environment Canada.

The Atlantic whitefish and its habitat are also protected by provincial legislation including the 1998 Nova Scotia Endangered Species Act and the 1994-95 Nova Scotia Environment Act.   Minamkeak, Milipsigate and Hebb lakes form the water supply for the town of Bridgewater, and as such they will receive environmental protection as a designated ‘Protected Water Area’ under the provincial Environment Act . This type of designation involves a combination of regulations and best management practices which are rolled-out through a ‘Source Water Protection Plan’ and will address all activities in the watershed that could impact water quality (e.g., forestry, agriculture, road construction, recreational use, mining, etc.). The only fishery known to or likely to capture Atlantic whitefish in these three lakes is the recreational angling fishery which has either been closed or significantly modified to eliminate the likelihood of harm.

[1]This assessment was based on IUCN criteria, which differs from the criteria used by COSEWIC; and inaccurately identifies the distribution of the species as being the Great Lakes region of North America.

[2]All map images derived from the Nova Scotia Topographic Database (NSTDB) and used by permission of Service Nova Scotia.  Maps intended for illustrative purposes only.