By Shawn Staton, Fisheries and Oceans Canada
A comprehensive, ecosystem-based recovery strategy for fish species at risk has recently been drafted for a large region of southwestern Ontario. The Essex-Erie Recovery Strategy includes the drainages of Lake Erie west of the Grand River watershed, the land draining into the Detroit River, and the land draining into Lake St. Clair west of the Thames River watershed. This project complements existing watershed-based recovery programs in southern Ontario (for the Sydenham, Ausable, Thames, and Grand Rivers) that aim to preserve freshwater biodiversity in priority watersheds of the Carolinian zone.
The ecosystem approach taken by the Essex-Erie Recovery Team* in the development of the strategy is particularly suited for the species-rich watersheds of southern Ontario. With 18 fishes at risk found within the study area threatened predominantly by land use, a multi-species approach provides an ecologically sound and cost-effective solution, which allows stakeholders to participate in a single planning exercise for all species. The fishes at risk known from the study area, include two species listed as Endangered (pugnose shiner and northern madtom), five as Threatened (eastern sand darter, lake chubsucker, spotted gar, black redhorse and channel darter) and 11 species listed as Special Concern. A substantial portion of the Canadian range of several species occurs within the study area.
In preparation for the development of the Recovery Strategy, the Recovery Team collected and synthesized existing information essential to understanding the various watersheds and their associated species: species at risk (trends in distribution over time, habitat needs and threats), the physical environment and land use, and water quality conditions. The resulting recovery strategy addresses the recovery needs for all 18 fishes at risk, but places the highest conservation priority on Endangered and Threatened species. Several primary core areas were identified based on the presence of existing populations of high priority fishes at risk. Coastal wetland habitats, including Point Pelee, Rondeau Bay and Long Point Bay supporting populations of spotted gar and lake chubsucker are particularly significant. Other primary core areas include the Detroit River, the south shore of Lake St. Clair and Big Creek (Long Point Region). Recovery actions to reduce identified threats, such as habitat loss and sediment and nutrient loading within the drainages of these primary core areas, have been given highest priority within the recovery strategy.
The Recovery Team is wasting no time getting to work on implementation of the recovery strategy. Already, a Stewardship Working Group has been formed and funds have been obtained through the Government of Canada’s Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk. Working Group partners, including conservation authorities and county stewardship councils are working with landowners in priority areas to improve habitat conditions for fishes at risk. Stewardship projects, such as riparian plantings, livestock exclusion and soil erosion reduction, can reduce nutrient and sediment inputs and improve water and habitat quality. Although initial funding for the project is modest, the Working Group is actively seeking additional funds and hopes to attract greater community involvement in the future. Anyone interested in getting involved should contact their local conservation authority or stewardship council.
*The Essex-Erie Recovery Team is co-chaired by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Essex Region Conservation Authority with representation from Kettle Creek, Catfish Creek, Long Point Region and Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authorities.
Other partners include the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment Canada, University of Windsor, Elgin Stewardship Committee, Essex County Stewardship Network, Stewardship Kent, Point Pelee National Park, Rondeau Provincial Park and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food