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A Fish Running Out Of Time

sunset over a Nova Scotia lake scen
photo by Kelly Mercer

I didn’t even know there was a fish called the Atlantic whitefish until recently, when I read about its near-extinction from its last redoubt in Nova Scotia.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported that Atlantic whitefish populations have crashed so severely that researchers are taking every juvenile they can find to a federal fish hatchery in order to keep them in safe. It’s a last-ditch effort to save a species that has struggled for years. Biologists have not sighted any adults since 2014, with juveniles the only sign that the fish has not already gone extinct. And even juveniles are far from plentiful; the discovery of just 19 of them was enough to be noteworthy.

I always thought of whitefish as a freshwater fish, primarily found in the Great Lakes. But Atlantic whitefish is anadromous, like its relative, the salmon: The fish spawn in freshwater and then migrate to the sea. At least some adults have survived to spawn, or researchers would not find new juveniles. But their small numbers are deeply disheartening, and Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans has already warned that the Atlantic whitefish may be within a few years of extinction.

When many laypeople think about the factors threatening endangered species, they tend to think – not without reason – of habitat loss resulting from the conversion of rural areas to suburban or urban ones. But as this story illustrates, changing patterns in rural land use can affect a species’s survival just as much, or more, as encroaching subdivisions.

Nova Scotia is anything but urban. Halifax, the only city in the province worthy of the name, has scarcely 300,000 people in its urban core, and barely more than 400,000 total. Most of the landscape on Nova Scotia’s mainland is flat to gently rolling, covered with lakes and woods, but with large tracts of agricultural land taking advantage of a relatively mild maritime climate and longish growing season. Cape Breton Island, also a part of the province, is much more rugged and densely forested.

Even though Nova Scotia remains wild by human standards, it has not escaped the effects of human activity. Biologists cite poaching, acid rain and the damming of rivers as factors in the Atlantic whitefish’s decline. Perhaps most damagingly, anglers have introduced invasive species to inland lakes. Smallmouth bass and chain pickerel both prey on the native whitefish and have undermined previous attempts to reintroduce captive-bred fish to the wild.

Caribou once lived in Nova Scotia, as did the Eastern wolf. Both were gone by the mid-1800s. A small remnant caribou population lives in Quebec’s remote Gaspe Peninsula today, the nearest they come to Nova Scotia. Walrus were once plentiful on offshore Sable Island, but they were hunted out of the area centuries ago. Occasionally one wanders down from subarctic Labrador, but they don’t take up residence.

Even the moose, plentiful in nearby New Brunswick and Maine, is rare on the mainland. It isn’t rare on Cape Breton, but that population is an import from Alberta, a different subspecies than the eastern moose that is barely hanging on in isolated patches of woods.

When you fly over Nova Scotia, you look down at what seems a wild landscape, pocked with lakes and largely covered in spruce and fir. You likely would think it was a natural paradise. But it takes little human intervention to upset the balance. The Atlantic whitefish is down to its last gasp. I didn’t even know it was there, but I will be sad to see it go.

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