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Recovery Strategy for the Atlantic Whitefish

1.1 Performance Indicators

Measurable performance indicators will be a critical component of the recovery action plan for the Atlantic whitefish to gauge the extent to which recovery activities are successful in contributing to the stated recovery goal for the species. An ongoing assessment of the efficacy of actions undertaken within a recovery initiative as part of the action planning process will be critical to ensuring both intelligent use of resources as well as the greatest likelihood of species recovery.

1.2 Identification of Knowledge Gaps

Significant progress has been achieved since the formation of the Recovery Team in 1999 in addressing knowledge gaps of importance to recovery planning and recovery strategy implementation. Information is now available or forthcoming from current activities for the following:

  • phylogenetic status, historic and current range and status of the species;
  • genetic health of the remaining members of the species;
  • accurate field identification of living specimens using external characters;
  • genetic markers to support enforcement efforts and future assessments of species distribution;
  • captive breeding and rearing protocols;
  • life-history stage specific assessments of susceptibility to acid (rain) toxicity; thermal preferences, and salinity tolerance;
  • trophic position of Atlantic whitefish residing in lakes;
  • degree of threat to survival and recovery posed by invasive species;
  • effects of current human activities on Atlantic whitefish survival;
  • fish passage requirements around dams, and;
  • feasibility of establishing additional freshwater resident populations using seed stock reared in captivity.

Although the above acquired information will possibly improve the likelihood that the recovery actions will be successful, the adequacy of the existing information base is uncertain. Recovery of the species can only be realized through range extension into the marine realm (i.e., anadromy), and into freshwater habitat not currently occupied by the species. There is no existing information on the life history of Atlantic whitefish anywhere other than within the Petite Rivière lakes. As new information is acquired, the Recovery Team must use an adaptive management approach to ensure survival of the species within existing habitat, and to ensure the success of range expansion into the marine realm and additional freshwater sites. Knowledge gaps that must be addressed as recovery implementation continues to unfold include:


  • quantitative assessment of populationsize, age composition and age at maturity, and growth and mortality;
  • effects of current human activities on Atlantic whitefish survival, and;
  •  fish passage requirements. 

Captive Rearing

  • nutritional, husbandry, and space requirements to maintain Atlantic whitefish in captivity, and;
  • likelihood that domestication selection will occur within Atlantic whitefish spawned and reared in captivity.


  • determination of specific habitat requirements as they relate to spawning, incubation, rearing and thermal refugial requirements;
  • seasonal area of occupancy of Atlantic whitefish;
  • identification and mapping of residences and critical habitat, and;
  • assessment of habitat suitability within candidate stocking sites.

For details on specific activities that target the key knowledge gaps in the habitat requirements and identification of critical habitat for Atlantic whitefish view the ‘Schedule of Studies’ to identify critical habitat in Appendix II.

1.3 Development of Action Plans

Recovery action plans are the documents that lay out how recovery strategies are to be implemented. Action plans take recommendations from the recovery strategy, either individually or collectively, and chart out who needs to be involved and to what extent in carrying out the proposed activities.

Following the approval of this recovery strategy under SARA and posting on the Public Registry, a recovery Action Plan for the Atlantic whitefish will be developed within two years. In the interim, many of the strategies in this document can be acted on and therefore, recovery implementation will be an ongoing activity that can occur in the absence of any formal action plan. Furthermore, the Strategy recognizes the need for adaptive management; as new information becomes available, the actions for recovery may be modified.

1.4 Allowable Activities

The prohibitions associated with the Species at Risk Act (SARA) came into force on June 1, 2004 and subsequently, Atlantic whitefish were legally protected from activities that contravene these prohibitions. Subsection 83(4) of SARA however, enables recovery strategies, action plans and management plans to exempt certain activities from certain prohibitions under SARA. In order for this provision to apply, the activities must be authorized under another Act of Parliament.

A Regional Advisory Process (RAP) meeting was convened in November 2004 to assess the level of mortality that would not jeopardize the survival or recovery of the species.  Participants included DFO scientists and fisheries managers, the provincial departments of Agriculture and Fisheries, and Natural Resources, scientists from academia and representatives from the Recovery Team. The products of this review are formal documents which provide the conclusions of the meeting (DFO 2004a), along with the Proceedings which provide details of the discussions generated in review of the working papers (DFO 2004b).These documents are available on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans website, under the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) at:


Discussions during the review indicate that there are no estimates of abundance for Atlantic whitefish; status and trends is limited to an analysis of relative indicators of spatial occupancy (i.e., change in geographic distribution over time). Potential sources of mortality and aggregate harm, their relative rank effect by activity, alternatives to current human activities, and feasible measures to minimize impact of activities on Atlantic whitefish are presented in DFO 2004b and included fishing activities, habitat effects due to barriers to fish passage, water extraction, urbanization, eutrophication, and scientific collections.  

The conclusion from the meeting was that there are no indications that current human activities (as above) 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 because they may jeopardize the survival and recovery of the species (DFO 2004a).A scientific review of activities and any new information will be undertaken every 5 years to ensure that the survival or recovery of the species is not jeopardized. In accordance with subsection 83(4) of SARA, the recovery strategy permits the operation of the Hebb Lake Dam that is authorized pursuant to subsection 6(4) of the Navigable Waters Protection Act, R.S.C., 1985, c. N-22. 

Should new activities or changes to existing activities be anticipated, an assessment of their impact on the survival and recovery of Atlantic whitefish will be undertaken.

The allowable harm assessment could not address whether current activities jeopardize the recovery of Atlantic whitefish as recovery for this species is defined as an increase in area of occupancy.  Consequently, the lack of prior knowledge concerning the threats to the species outside its current area of known occupancy precludes that assessment at this time.  This recovery strategy accordingly presents several options to achieve recovery (range extension); the feasibility of each option has not been determined (see Objective 2; page 27).

1.5 Recovery Effort Underway: Fish releases into Anderson Lake

 The Recovery Team identified the need to establish back-up populations of Atlantic whitefish to minimize its risk of extinction.  In 2004, a DFO Science workshop was held to examine decision criteria for introducing this species into a watercourse beyond its existing range, and to develop a “decision support tool” to guide the decision making process (DFO 2004c).  This decision support tool was subsequently screened by a technical committee of the Recovery Team.  Anderson Lake,near Burnside, in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, was considered an acceptable candidate site according to the criteria of the tool. 

On November 4, 2005, 1500 Atlantic whitefish reared at DFO’s Mersey Biodiversity Facility were released into Anderson Lake as part of a three-year trial project.  A second release of 750 fish occurred on April 24, 2006 and a third release of another 750 fish is scheduled to occur during the fall of 2006. In addition, a number of young-of-the-year fish was also released in April and May of 2006. DFO staff will monitor the whitefish in Anderson Lake to determine the success of the introductions.

With respect to legal protection, the SARA legislation discussed in Section 1.3 applies to the Atlantic whitefish found in Anderson Lake, as does the Fisheries Act.  Section 6 of the Maritime Provides Fishery Regulations (MPFRs) also applies, however no additional protection measures (e.g., variation orders) were deemed necessary in this lake.  DFO held consultations with the owners of the land surrounding Anderson Lake (see Appendix III) prior to the releases.  As well, DFO signed Working Agreements with the land owners to facilitate a cooperative approach to avoiding or mitigating any potential negative effects potentially resulting from possible future development activities around the lake.

1.6 Anticipated Conflicts or Challenges

 As has been illustrated throughout this document, a major challenge facing the recovery of Atlantic whitefish is the lack of general knowledge about the species biology, its abundance and habitat requirements, as well as assessing the impact of identified threats and appropriate measures to mitigate these threats (Section 2.5).

Some of the anticipated conflicts or challenges facing the recovery of Atlantic whitefish include the following dependant on recovery actions taken:

  • (re)-introduction of the species into watersheds other than the Tusket and Petite rivers could be ecologically and socially problematic.  From both ecological and management perspectives, there could be negative consequences to other recreational fisheries or resource values;
  • water control changes could impact stakeholders;
  • fishery regulatory changes could impact stakeholders, particularly recreational fishers;
  • predators and competitors such as smallmouth bass and chain pickerel may be difficult to control.  The implications of the introduction of these species are not well understood and effective methods of control have not been identified.  Furthermore, smallmouth bass are a popular sport fish and their presence in a watershed is not necessarily viewed by all interest groups as negative, and;
  • obtaining the financial resources and technical and scientific expertise required for timely implementation of all aspects of the recovery initiative may be problematic.  It is acknowledged that there is significant demand from a wide variety of interests in our society for public and private sector funding for initiatives. Furthermore, the existing workload for many of the key contributors to this initiative is substantial.