Something’s Fishy: Atlantic whitefish

Atlantic whitefish (Photo by Bob Semple)

Atlantic whitefish (Photo by Bob Semple)

April 29, 2019 | by Raechel Wastesicoot

In the cold waters of Nova Scotia’s Petite Rivière watershed swims a fish so elusive that, without action, it might never be seen again.

Size and appearance

This silvery-sided species, with its blueish-green back, is commonly confused with the more common lake whitefish. In addition to their unique life cycle, Atlantic whitefish differ from lake whitefish by their relatively smaller scales. Atlantic whitefish also have well-developed teeth and are considered the most ancient species of the whitefish family in North America.


Atlantic whitefish is an endangered species unique to Canada that exists only in Nova Scotia. Historical records show that it may have once been found throughout southwestern Nova Scotia. Today, its range has shrunk further, and the last wild population of Atlantic whitefish on the planet is found only in the Petite Rivière watershed.


Historically, the Atlantic whitefish was anadromous, meaning it spawned in fresh water but lived most of its life at sea. But as dams were built in the 1800s to power mills, its passage to the sea was cut off.

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Smallmouth bass (Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Smallmouth bass (Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Atlantic whitefish may very well be one of the most endangered species in all of Canada. In addition to dams and barriers that have blocked the species’ migration, smallmouth bass and chain pickerel have been introduced to the lakes where it still lives. While smallmouth bass and chain pickerel are native to Canada, they are not native to these lakes and have added a new predator that is impacting the small population of Atlantic whitefish.


Atlantic whitefish is assessed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species and listed as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. In 1984, it was the first fish in Canada to be assessed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Conservation to the rescue

Atlantic whitefish (Photo by Ian Manning CC BY-NC-SA)

Atlantic whitefish (Photo by Ian Manning CC BY-NC-SA)

In 2004, the Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation launched the Atlantic Whitefish Recovery Project to raise public awareness of the species and its dwindling population. The organization continues to work with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to stabilize what is left of the population in the Petite Rivière watershed.

An amended recovery strategy and action plan was released in 2018 by DFO, with the goal of stabilizing the current population of Atlantic whitefish in Nova Scotia and expanding its current range. As part of the strategy, the Petite Rivière watershed has been designated as a critical habitat area for the species.

There was some good news for this species last year. In December, an adult Atlantic whitefish was spotted in the Petite Rivière watershed, marking the first time in nearly five years that the species has been seen here. Researchers also caught 28 wild juvenile Atlantic whitefish to raise in a hatchery at Halifax’s Dalhousie University. Raising a captive population is an important conservation strategy to prevent this species from becoming extinct.

Protecting vital habitat

The Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) Atlantic Region is developing a freshwater conservation blueprint that includes Nova Scotia. This blueprint will help identify where threats to the Atlantic whitefish occur and help assist in planning for its recovery.

We still have an opportunity to protect this unique Canadian species for future generations, but we need to move quickly. The fate of Atlantic whitefish will be decided by the conservation actions we take today.

This story first appeared in the spring 2019 issue of the Nature Conservancy of Canada Magazine. Donors who contribute at least $25 or more per year will receive four issues of the magazine. Click here to donate today and start receiving the magazine.

Raechel Bonomo (Photo by Chase Wastesicoot)

About the Author

Raechel Wastesicoot is the manager, internal communications and culture at the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Read more about Raechel Wastesicoot.

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