Endangered fish in 'dire trouble' without DFO program, scientists say
'They should seriously consider restarting the captive breeding program'
The federal government is being urged to restore a program cut by the Harper government, in order to prevent an endangered fish from going extinct.
"The species is in dire trouble," Andrew Breen, of the Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation, said Thursday.
The non-governmental organization is part of a federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans-led Atlantic whitefish recovery team, which removes — using stun guns — small mouth bass and chain pickerel from the small watershed where the remaining whitefish population survives.
That's not enough to save the fish, said Breen, who is the foundation's project leader for the species.
"They should seriously consider restarting the captive breeding program. Time is of the essence," he said.
Breeding program cut
The program was shuttered in 2012, and its Queens County, N.S., facility was dismantled two years later.
That program took adult fish from the wild and bred them at the Mersey Biodiversity Centre. Now, ponds are filled with gravel, some water supply pipes dug out with an excavator, the laboratories and the oxygen injection building are gone.
At the time, the Conservative government justified the closure on the grounds the facility was not needed because it had stocked Anderson Lake in Burnside, N.S., with fish reared in the breeding program.
Fish not breeding
But a DFO assessment in 2015 is bleak.
"[No] Atlantic whitefish that would be the result of spawning in the lake were observed. Losses of stocked juveniles from predation and perhaps starvation appeared to be high," department scientist Rod Bradford said in the report.
DFO has not checked on whitefish in Anderson Lake in four years, but is planning a trip.
Dave Daigley with the Queens County Fish and Game Association, said the department botched managing the species.
"That population needed support earlier — and they did not get it," Dagely said. "Their heart was never in it."
Alligator without legs
Shortly after the captive breeding program ended, an invasive species called the chain pickerel appeared in the only wild whitefish habitat: the three lakes that make up the Petite Riviere watershed near the Town of Bridgewater.
The pike-like pickerel — called alligators without legs by some — are now confirmed in two of the three lakes in the system. There are fears the species has spread to the last refuge, Minamkeak Lake, N.S.
As few as 250 whitefish
The department plans to do an updated population estimate of whitefish and the species that threaten them.
In 2004, a decade prior to the pickerel's arrival, the department estimated there were fewer than 1,000 whitefish.
Today, Breen estimates there could be as few as 250.
Invasive species adds urgency
All involved in trying to save whitefish agree the arrival of pickerel adds new urgency to the situation.
"That's the main driver to finding a solution," DFO regional science director Alain Vezina said.
Restoring a captive breeding program is "not off the table," he said.
The department is looking at capacity at federal hatcheries at Coldbrook, N.S., and Mactaquac, N.B., he said.
But Vezina is not convinced the situation is irreversible. He said he is taking comfort in the fact that 53 juvenile Atlantic whitefish were found this spring by the Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation.
He said that's proof adult whitefish were alive last year, especially important given no adults had been seen since 2014.
He says DFO will decide on what it will do by the end of summer.
As part of its contribution to save the whitefish the Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture spends 15 nights a year electro fishing lakes in the Petite Riviere system. This week, the electro fishing boat was back at Hebb Lake for a second time this month.
From the boat, they put an electric current into the water, stunning fish swimming below. The night CBC was on board, the crew caught dozens of pickerel, including two "very large for Nova Scotia."
One 25-inch pickerel had a large smallmouth bass — eaten whole — in its stomach.
"This is clearly the dominant predator," resources manager Jason LeBlanc said.
In the last three years, electro fishing has permanently removed 2,200 chain pickerel and bass from the whitefish habitat, Leblanc said.
Electro fishing can knock down invasive species in small shoreline areas by up to 95 per cent, he said, but ultimately, the practice is "buying time."
"They are well established here — and that's the biggest concern. Once a species like this gets well established, they are almost impossible to reverse. In the long term, they will change the ecosystem here, and likely to the detriment of the Atlantic whitefish."