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Recovery Strategy for the Eastern Sand Darter

2. Recovery

2.1 Recovery Feasibility

Recovery feasibility is determined according to the four criteria as outlined by the Government of Canada (2006):

 1.     Are individuals capable of reproduction currently available to improve the population growth rate or population abundance?

Yes.  While successful spawning requires specific habitat conditions, the species’ continued presence in a number of Ontario watersheds, as well as the presence of multiple year-classes, indicates that reproduction is occurring.  In Quebec, specimens have recently been caught from at least five sites since 1995, which indicates the ongoing presence of the eastern sand darter in Quebec (Holm and Mandrak 1996).  Although spawning requires specific habitat conditions, the permanent occurrence of the species in certain streams (i.e. Assomption and Richelieu rivers, Lake St. Pierre archipelago) indicates that reproduction has occurred in recent years.  Due to the relatively low fecundity of eastern sand darter, a long time frame may be required for populations to recover or re-establish (Holm and Mandrak 1996).

2.     Is sufficient suitable habitat available to support the species or could it be made available through habitat management or restoration?

 Yes.  Suitable habitat does occur for this species; although knowledge of suitable habitat is higher in Ontario and more limited in Quebec.  Based on the little available information, the species’ range is receding in Quebec.  Sustaining this species in the long term could, therefore, not be ensured until assaults on its habitat are abated (Holm and Mandrak 2000, Gaudreau 2005, NatureServe 2006).  Better water quality and existing habitat management (through stewardship and better management practices) could improve and increase appropriate habitats.  In addition, the eastern sand darter could have the opportunity of repopulating a portion of a stream following the replacement of a silty substrate with a sandy substrate (Gaudreau 2005).

3.     Can significant threats to the species or its habitat be avoided or mitigated through recovery actions?

Yes.  Significant threats to eastern sand darter habitat, such as increased siltation and turbidity, can be addressed through recovery actions.  Stewardship and implementation of best management practices (BMPs) would mitigate these threats.  Basin-wide efforts to reduce siltation and sediment input into areas of eastern sand darter occurrence due to overland, bank and bed erosion, drainage tiles and additional sources will be necessary to significantly improve water quality and reduce human pressure on the species and its habitats.(Dextrase et al. 2003, ARRT 2005).

4.     Do the necessary recovery techniques exist and are they demonstrated to be effective?

Yes.  Best management practices and stewardship activities are available to improve water quality in lakes and rivers.  Water quality improvements associated with a decreased silt load benefited eastern sand darter populations in Vermont and New York (Daniels 1993).  The integrated water management strategy by drainage basin in Quebec is a good example because it merges all the water uses and their impacts throughout the territory and uses different techniques to ensure the restoration of the streams (i.e. water quality and sediment control, inventories, raising awareness, planning and making developments).  Encouraging results have already been observed for the American smelt (Osmerus mordax) on the Boyer and Fouquette rivers, where the actions performed by the drainage basin management committee restored several riparian habitats and reduced various sources of water pollution (Équipe de rétablissement de l’éperlan arc-en-ciel 2003).  Similar efforts are also being deployed in the Outardes East River drainage basin (G. Audet, pers. comm.).

Re-introductions may be feasible through captive rearing or adult transfers.  Although there are no published studies on the husbandry of eastern sand darter (ARRT 2005), captive rearing and translocations have been used in the southeastern United States towards the recovery of other endangered darter species (Shute et al. 2005).  For example, populations of imperiled species such as the snail darter (Percina tanasi) and fringed darter (Etheostoma crossopterum) have been established through adult transfers (Etnier and Starnes 1993, Poly 2004).  However, these darter species did not include any in the Ammocrypta genus.  Alternatively, several populations of eastern sand darter in the United States and Canada (e.g. Thames River) are stable and genetic analyses would determine their appropriateness as sources for reintroductions.  A plan will need to be developed for repatriation initiatives, should they be deemed feasible and appropriate.

 The above criteria indicate that recovery is biologically and technically feasible for Ontario populations.  The level of effort required for the recovery of the Sydenham and Thames river populations would be moderate due to a focus on habitat restoration and protection (Dextrase et al. 2003).  Where the eastern sand darter has been extirpated from systems in Ontario, which may be the case in four river systems, the level of effort required for population recovery would be high as it would entail both habitat restoration and repatriation (ARRT 2005).  Management priorities should be given to high quality habitat areas currently supporting eastern sand darter populations.  The cost of restoring degraded, highly impacted habitat is high.

The recovery of the eastern sand darter is also feasible in Quebec .  Even though the species is not very abundant, it still occurs in certain Quebec streams.  The eastern sand darter situation can be improved by effectively protecting and increasing the number and quality of habitats frequented by the species.  A global improvement of the environmental condition of the drainage basins could also lead to the improvement of water quality in the tributaries where the species is found.  The current knowledge gaps concerning the species must initially be filled in order to set up protection measures, effective developments and thus ensure that the objectives of the recovery strategy are met.

2.2 Recovery Goal

The long-term goal of this recovery strategy is to prevent the further decline of eastern sand darter populations and the deterioration of their habitat in Canada.  It is also to ensure its sustainability by increasing the distribution and abundance of eastern sand darter throughout its current Canadian rangeby improving habitat quality and through reintroductions, if feasible .

2.3 Recovery Objectives

Short-term Recovery Objectives (5 year)

As available information on current and historical eastern sand darter populations is very limited, it is quite difficult to establish precise objectives in terms of absolute number of individuals.  Thus, the objectives presented here are more qualitative in nature.  It is also important to note that not all recovery objectives will apply to all populations.

 Protect known populations and habitats.

  1. Determine the extent, abundance and demographics of existing populations through a focused sampling program.
  2. Determine the extent, abundance and quality of existing habitat (sandy patches) in areas of occurrence through a focused sampling program.
  3. Identify key habitat requirements to define critical habitat and implement strategies to protect known habitats.
  4. Establish a long-term population and habitat monitoring program.
  5. Clarify threats and identify remedial actions to reduce their effects.
  6. Examine the feasibility of translocations, reintroductions and captive rearing.
  7. Increase awareness of the significance of this species and its status as an aquatic species at risk and indicator of ecosystem health.
  8. Develop linkages among partners, including watershed-based recovery teams, interest groups, industry, agencies and landowners interested in supporting the recovery of the eastern sand darter.

2.4 Approaches Recommended to Meet Recovery Objectives

2.4.1    Recovery Planning

Recovery approaches have been organized into three categories: ‘Research and Monitoring’, ‘Management and Habitat Protection’ and ‘Stewardship, Outreach and Education’ (Table 5).  Although approaches have been prioritized, all are important to meet recovery goals and objectives.  A narrative has been included after Table 5, where deemed appropriate. 

Table 5.  Recovery approaches for eastern sand darter in Canada.


Threat Addressed

(S. 1.5.2)

Broad strategy to Address Threats Recommended Approaches to Meet Recovery Objective(s)
R.1 High iii Habitat Surveys & MappingEvaluate and map the distribution, quantity and quality of sand habitats in the vicinity of known populations.
R.2 High ii, iii, iv, v Background Surveys and Monitoring

Develop a long-term monitoring program that includes a sampling protocol and training

Sample sites of known occurrence and suitable habitat using appropriate gear (seine or trawl). 

Incorporate findings into a routine population monitoring program.

R.3 High vii Captive Rearing and Repatriation

Determine the feasibility and appropriateness of repatriations in areas of suitable habitat.

Where repatriations are deemed appropriate for restoring populations (historical or degraded), develop a repatriation plan.

R.4 High iii, iv 

Habitat Assessment – Occupied Habitat

Habitat Assessment – Historical and Unoccupied Habitat

Identify environmental parameters as well as abiotic and biotic features of habitat with eastern sand darter occupancy.

Identify environmental parameters, as well as abiotic and biotic characteristics, of areas of suitable habitat but void of eastern sand darter.

Conduct statistical comparisons with results of R.3 to determine if unoccupied areas have habitat limitations.

R.5 High iv Critical Habitat Characterization Describe and identify the main components of the species’ critical habitat at each stage of its life cycle.
No. PriorityObjective

Threat Addressed

(S. 1.5.2)

Broad strategy to Address Threats Recommended Approaches to Meet Recovery Objective(s)
R.6 High ii, v  Inventories Establish a standard sampling method for catching and identifying all life stages of the eastern sand darter and conduct targeted inventories in the species’ currently and historically occupied sites to define and complete current knowledge on the species’ range in Canada, particularly in Quebec.
R.7 Moderate vi iInvasive Species - MonitoringMonitor watersheds, in cooperation with existing ecosystem recovery teams, for the presence of the round goby, particularly in the East Sydenham River, Thames River and Grand River.
R.8 Moderate iii, iv Surficial Geology EvaluationEvaluate the surficial geology of areas where the eastern sand darter occurs to identify locations of sand sources needed to create habitat.
R.9 Moderate ii  Research Improve knowledge on population dynamics.
R.10 Moderate vi  Research Better describe threats that can limit eastern sand darter abundance and distribution in Quebec.
R.11 Moderate iv  Research Determine the species’ physiological thresholds for the relevant water quality parameters (water temperature, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, nutrients).
R.12 Moderate ii, v  Inventories Conduct inventories in streams where eastern sand darter is known to occur (currently and historically) and in the areas of potential habitat.
R.13 Moderate v  Communication and Coordination Develop a central database for recording species’ data and integrate these observations into the Centre de données sur le patrimoine naturel du Québec system.
No. PriorityObjective

Threat Addressed

(S. 1.5.2)

Broad strategy to Address Threats Recommended Approaches to Meet Recovery Objective(s)
R.14 Moderate vi a-kThreat Clarification

Some examples:


i) determine significant sources of sediment input, point and non-point source contamination.

ii) determine vulnerability to known and suspected contaminants affecting eastern sand darters.

Baitfish Harvesting:  determine the risk of by-catch as a result of baitfish harvesting.

Shoreline Alteration:  determine impact of shoreline alteration of coastal processes responsible for maintaining eastern sand darter habitat.

Channel & Dam Modification:  - assess the potential impacts of dam modifications and channel alteration on habitat.

Invasive Species: determine risk of negative effect resulting from expansion of round goby and other aquatic invasive species.

R.15 Low ii Gear SelectivityDetermine best methods for sampling eastern sand darter in riverine and lake habitats.
R.16 Low i, vi Conservation Genetics Examine the degree of genetic variation and isolation within (i.e. small populations and inbreeding concerns) and among populations across its North American range.
R.17 Low iii, iv  Habitat Modeling Develop a predictive habitat model in order to identify the potential eastern sand darter sites and significant habitat areas.
No. PriorityObjective

Threat Addressed

(S. 1.5.2)

Broad strategy to Address Threats Recommended Approaches to Meet Recovery Objective(s)
M.1 Highi d,e,g,hManagement and PolicyRecognize the importance of fluvial and longshore processes and sources of sand bedload in the maintenance of eastern sand darter habitats, and ensure that these are protected.
M.2 Highvi, ix Assessment of Watershed-Scale StressorsIn cooperation with relevant ecosystem recovery teams, address watershed-scale stressors to populations and their habitat.
M.3 Highvi iInvasive Species Management PlanDevelopment of a management plan addressing potential risks and proposed actions in response to the arrival or establishment of invasive species, such as the round goby.
M.4 High i  Habitat Management and Protection Plan and draw up an eastern sand darter conservation plan for Quebec.
M.5 High i  Habitat Protection Protect habitats using legal and administrative means.
M.6 Moderate viii, ix  Habitat Management and Municipal Planning Encourage municipalities to include the concerns about eastern sand darter habitat conservation in the municipal territory planning documents.
M.7 Moderatei d,e,g,h Water Flow RegimesEnsure that flow requirements of the eastern sand darter are considered in the management of water supply and flow regimes.
S.1 High viii, ix  Stewardship Develop stewardship activities with managers, owners and citizens aimed at protecting aquatic habitats.
S.2Highix  CoordinationSet up a recovery strategy implementation team for Ontario.
S.3Highix  PartnershipsForm partnerships to obtain funding and to bring recovery strategy actions to term.
S.4 Moderate vi 

Inventories –

Risk Assessment

Ask that an inventory specifically aimed at the eastern sand darter using appropriate techniques be included in the guidelines to consultants when conducting an impact study for a project on a given stream (current or potential habitat for the species).
No. PriorityObjective

Threat Addressed

(S. 1.5.2)

Broad strategy to Address Threats Recommended Approaches to Meet Recovery Objective(s)
S.5 Moderateviii, ix Coordination with Other Recovery TeamsWork with relevant ecosystem recovery teams and single species recovery teams to implement recovery action plans and to obtain incidental sightings.
S.6 Moderateviii, ix Relationship Building – DrainageEstablish good working relationships with drainage supervisors, engineers and contractors to limit the effects of drainage activities.
S.7 Moderate viii, ix  Communication and Raising Awareness (Communication Plan)

Establish a communication and awareness-raising plan.

Raise the awareness and develop information tools specific to agricultural, industrial and municipal stakeholders as to the impacts the pollution they generate have on the eastern sand darter.

Develop awareness-raising and information tools to promote sound development practices on the territory – MRC, municipality, owners, vacationers, promoters and industries.

S.8Moderatevi, viiiiInvasive SpeciesIncrease public awareness of the impacts of invasive species on the natural ecosystem, encourage the use of the Ontario invasive species reporting system, and develop a round goby reporting system for Quebec.
S.9Moderate   Management and CoordinationDevelop an annual recovery actions assessment.
S.10Moderateviii, ix Stewardship and Habitat InitiativesPromote stewardship among landowners abutting aquatic habitats of eastern sand darter and other local residents.  For significant habitat improvements to be made, basin wide efforts will be necessary.
No. PriorityObjective

Threat Addressed

(S. 1.5.2)

Broad strategy to Address Threats Recommended Approaches to Meet Recovery Objective(s)
S.11Moderateviii, ix Stewardship - Implementation of BMPsWork with landowners to implement BMPs including those relating to riparian buffers, soil conservation, herd management, nutrient and manure management, tile drainage; encourage the completion of Environmental Farm Management Plans (EFPs) and Nutrient Management Plans (NMPs).
S.12Moderateviii, ix Financial Assistance of Local LandownersPursue additional sustainable funds for landowners and local community groups.
S.13Moderateviii, ix Awareness - Addressing Landowner ConcernsProvision of clear communications addressing financial compensation opportunities and landowner concerns and responsibilities under SARA.
S.14Moderateviii, ixjAwareness – Incidental Bait Harvesting

Provide an information package to commercial bait fishermen regarding this species and its habitat.

Request that they avoid these habitats within the reaches known to support this species, and release and report any eastern sand darters captured.

S.15Lowviii, ix Relationship BuildingIn cooperation with ecosystem recovery teams, build relationships among a diverse assemblage of interest groups and stakeholders within the watersheds where it occurs.
S.16 Low viii, ix  Raising Awareness (Wildlife Officers) Train responsible wildlife officers in Ontario and Quebec and raise their awareness of eastern sand darters and other fish species at risk.
S.17 Low viii  Communication Inform the public concerning research and restoration efforts.
S.18 Low viii  Communication and Raising Awareness (Public) – Printed Documents Produce information documents and a public education and awareness-raising pamphlet concerning the eastern sand darter.

Background Surveys and Monitoring (R.2): The eastern sand darter is known from only a few locations in watersheds throughout its range.  As well, only a few specimen documentations have been made.  In some cases, such as in the Ausable River, only historical records exist.  This species may be somewhat more widely distributed than currently known, due to its cryptic burrowing behaviour (Portt et al. 2004).  In the vicinity of current and historical occurrence, surveys are required to:

  1. confirm the spatial distribution of extant populations;
  2. confirm the loss of historical populations;
  3. identify suitable habitat (distribution, quantity and quality of sandy patches);
  4. provide an index of abundance and trend over time data; and,
  5. detect the presence of round goby (R.7).

Table 6.  Survey needs for eastern sand darter in specific waterbodies in Ontario.

OntarioWatershedSurvey Needs
Ausable RiverTo determine if populations are extant.
Catfish Creek
Big Otter Creek
Big Creek
Sydenham RiverTo determine if populations are extirpated from the East Branch between Strathroy and Alvinston.
Grand RiverTo determine if populations are present between the Oxbow and Caledonia dam.
Thames RiverRoutine monitoring of populations.
Lake Erie
Lake Huron
Lake St. Clair

It is recommended that riverine populations are surveyed during periods of low flow (i.e. summer and early fall).  Field surveys should target shallow habitats with sand and/or mixed sand/gravel bed material.

Captive Rearing and Reintroduction(R.3)

Reintroduction efforts need to consider the following:

  1. Prior to developing reintroduction plans, it is necessary to confirm through intensive sampling that eastern sand darter are no longer present.
  2. Many of the extirpations are presumed to be the result of habitat degradation.  The success of reintroductions will depend on an understanding of the species’ habitat needs and on a sufficient quantity of suitable habitat being available at the repatriation site.  Surveys need to be undertaken to characterize current habitat conditions and identify appropriate actions to improve degraded habitats. If habitat requirements are poorly understood, then studies of habitat use will need to be undertaken. 
  3. Reintroductions should not be considered until the factors for extirpation are understood and addressed.
  4. Source populations to support reintroductions need to be identified.  Ideally, source populations possess a high level of genetic diversity and genetic composition developed under similar historic conditions as the repatriation site.  Genetic comparisons with populations from other parts of its North American range will determine the appropriateness of augmentation and selecting source populations when deemed necessary.  Where possible, source populations within the same watershed are preferred. 
  5. Removal of individuals from source populations should not negatively affect the status of these populations.
  6. The preferred method of introduction (i.e. adult transfer versus captive-reared) needs to be determined.  If captive-rearing is the preferred option, propagation and rearing methods and an appropriate rearing facility will need to be identified. 
  7. To successfully establish self-sustaining populations and preserve the genetic composition, the number of individuals, appropriate life-stages, and the frequency and duration of supplemental stockings needs to be determined.  Population Viability Analysis (PVA) or other population modeling approaches may help to provide this information.  Proper application of PVA tools, however, may require improved information on the life history and demographics of the species targeted for reintroduction.
  8. Monitoring is required to ensure that newly established populations are viable, that the stocking rate is appropriate and habitat conditions continue to be suitable.
  9. All proposed reintroductions associated with this strategy will involve the preparation of a reintroduction plan that will address the logistic and ecological aspects discussed above, as well as stakeholder issues.

Reintroductions should follow the American Fisheries Society Guidelines for Introductions of Threatened and Endangered Fishes (Williams et al. 1988). 

Coordination with Other Recovery Teams (S.5): Many of the threats facing the eastern sand darter are a result of habitat degradation that affects numerous aquatic species. Multi-species ecosystem recovery strategies, such as those for the Sydenham, Ausable, Grand and Thames rivers, have incorporated the requirements of the eastern sand darter in their basin-wide strategies.  As well as species-specific considerations, these ecosystem-based strategies employ basin-wide strategies to improve environmental conditions such as water quality, benefiting the eastern sand darter and other species.  A coordinated, cohesive approach between the Ontario members of the ESDRT and multi-species recovery teams that maximizes opportunities to share resources, information and combine efficiencies is recommended.  The Ontario members of the ESDRT should conduct a science-based significance ranking of all eastern sand darter populations to provide guidance at the ecosystem level in terms of prioritization of approaches.  The Ontario members of the ESDRT should also coordinate efforts with recovery teams focused on the recovery of spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera) and round hickorynut (Obovaria subrotunda).

Communication and Raising Awareness (S.7): Public support and participation will be encouraged through the distribution of educational materials and the provision of stewardship resources and contacts.

Stewardship and Habitat Initiatives(S.10): Basin-wide efforts to improve habitat quality will be required in all watersheds.  This represents an important opportunity to engage land owners, local communities and stewardship councils on the issues of eastern sand darter recovery, ecosystem and environmental health, clean water protection, nutrient management, best management practices, stewardship projects and associated financial incentives.  On this effort, the Ontario members of the ESDRT will work closely with the various aquatic ecosystem recovery teams, many of which have already established stewardship liaisons and activities that will benefit the eastern sand darter.

Implementation of BMPs (S.11):The Ontario members of the ESDRT will work with watershed Stewardship, Awareness and Community Outreach Recovery Implementation Groups (RIG) will work with landowners and stewardship groups to implement BMPs including, but not limited to those listed in Table 5 (S.13).  Establishing riparian buffers reduces nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) and sediment inputs to receiving waters and overland run-off.  Restriction of livestock from watercourses, where feasible and appropriate, leads to reductions in erosion and sediment and nutrient loadings.  Nutrient and manure management will reduce nitrogen and phosphorus inputs into adjacent waterbodies, thereby, improving water quality for the eastern sand darter among other aquatic organisms.  The RIG can work with landowners to mitigate the impacts of tile drainage, thereby, reducing sediment and nutrient inputs.  Low-till practices can reduce soil erosion and improve soil structure while reducing sediment loads in adjacent watercourses.  Environmental Farm Plans prioritize BMP implementation at the level of the individual farm and are sometimes a pre-requisite for funding programs.  Environmental Farm Plans are overseen by the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Associations.  For more information on BMPs see: Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Best Management Practices Series:

Awareness – Incidental Bait Harvest (S.14):The eastern sand darter is not a legal baitfish in Ontario (Cudmore and Mandrak 2005).  However, it is susceptible to seining and may be negatively affected as by-catch.  The Grand River Fishes Recovery Team (Portt et al. 2004) identified the need for an information package to be developed and the potential opportunity of distributing it with baitfish licences for the areas occupied by this species in the Grand River.  The package could include a description and photograph or drawing of the species, a description of its general occurrence, and its preferred habitats.  Bait harvesters would be asked to avoid these areas and report any captures.