‘Endangered species right in our backyard’

Mobile rearing facility aims to grow Atlantic Whitefish population




SaltWire Network



When Leitha Haysom looks out over the Petite River on the edge of her Crousetown property, she is proud the river and three lakes in the Petite Riviére Watershed are the only remaining habitat on earth of the endangered Atlantic Whitefish. “It is an appreciation for the special nature of where we live. Everyone who lives in this part of the world knows that it is special and unique and important. But that added piece of the endangered species right in our backyard confirms for residents the unique nature of where we live,” Haysom said during an interview. “I think it is something the average resident would mention if they had a visitor coming. To say, ‘Did you know this is the only habitat of the Atlantic Whitefish? It doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. It is a highly endangered species that lives right here in our backyard. It gives another whole sense of appreciation for the beautiful place we live.” Haysom has never seen an Atlantic Whitefish, but she is aware of its presence through conservation work being done by groups like Coastal Action, a charitable group on the South Shore, supporting the current wild population of Atlantic Whitefish. “I think it is extremely important conservation work,” Haysom said. Amy Russell is a species at risk and biodiversity project co-ordinator with Coastal Action. According to Russell, the Atlantic Whitefish was the first fish species to be designated as endangered in 1984 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and was listed under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2003. “We started the Atlantic Whitefish Recovery Project at Coastal Action in 2004 when we were asked by NSDFA Inland Fisheries to work with them on developing appropriate education and outreach materials for the Atlantic Whitefish and were then asked to sit on the Atlantic Whitefish Conservation and Recovery Team, which was formed in 1999,” Russell said. She said the goal of the recovery project is to support the current wild population of Atlantic Whitefish because its range has been reduced. It has been designated endangered both provincially and federally. “We do activities such as removing invasive chain pickerel and smallmouth bass, which threaten the population. And we also do habitat monitoring and restoration, improving fish passage and education and outreach,” Russell said. She said the project had been largely funded by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and the Habitat Stewardship Program for Aquatic Species at Risk. Atlantic Whitefish are currently being bred and reared at Dalhousie University’s Aquatron Lab, an aquatic research facility working with marine biologists, ocean scientists, engineers, companies and the government. Lab manager John Batt said Atlantic Whitefish is an ancient species. It is as old as 16 million years and from the same family that includes salmon and trout. “They are a founding member of a unique lineage of whitefishes, so they are a very important part of Canada’s biodiversity,” Batt said. “This is potentially one of the first Whitefish ever evolved,” Batt said. “It’s important in that there is a lot of information in its gnome that can tell us a lot about these other species ... maybe even tell us something about salmon and trout themselves. If we lose it, we lose access to that information in addition to losing that level of biodiversity.” MOBILE STREAMSIDE REARING Coastal Action and the Aquatron Lab are collaborating on a new Streamside Rearing Facility, designed by the lab, to further support the recovery of the species by stabilizing, and hopefully rebuilding, the current wild whitefish population and potentially expanding its range in the future. The five-metre mobile unit is bringing part of the rearing operation to the banks of the whitefish habitat to house late-stage larvae in tanks where water from the lab is slowly replaced by water from the Petite system where they will be released as juveniles. It also provides the baby fish with protection from predators. Batt said they hope to have the mobile Streamside Rearing Facility operational by this spring. NUMBERS DWINDLING According to Batt, efforts to protect the 300 or fewer Atlantic Whitefish remaining in the wild in Nova Scotia are ramping up just in time. “The number of species we have is like a scorecard because the reason they are going extinct is because of us ... Humankind is threatened by the extinction of all these species,” Batt said. “You can’t go anywhere else and find Atlantic Whitefish. They only exist in one river system in the entire world. That river system happens to be here,” he said. “If we lose it in that river system, it disappears from the planet forever.”