The baitfish primer
A guide to identifying and protecting Ontario's baitfishes
by Becky Cudmore and Nicolas E. Mandrak
Table of Contents
- Summary of legislation and regulations related to baitfishes
- Potential impacts of harvest and use of baitfishes
- Baitfish habitat
- Anatomical key
- Pictorial key of Ontario fish families
- Species accounts
- What you can do to minimize impacts to aquatic ecosystems
- Further reading
Recreational angling is a popular pastime in Ontario - well over one million residents and visitors enjoy angling every year. Angling supports many aspects of the Ontario economy, including the baitfish industry. Many anglers use live bait, including baitfishes. Few anglers probably realize that there are over 40 species of legal baitfishes in Ontario. Too many, all small fishes look alike; however, upon closer inspection, most baitfish species can be distinguished from one another with relative ease. If you can tell a House Sparrow apart from a Black-Capped Chickadee, then (with practice) you will soon be able to distinguish a Creek Chub from a Longnose Dace!
The ability to distinguish among small fish species is important, as the use of many species for bait is illegal. It is discouraged, and often illegal, to use sport fishes, introduced (non-native) fishes, or fish species that are so rare that their use may lead to further declines and possible extinction. Even within fish families generally considered legal baitfishes, there are individual fish species that cannot be used.
Individual fish species may become illegal for baitfish use for various reasons:
- they are listed as Extirpated, Endangered, Threatened, or Special Concern under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) or the Ontario Endangered Species Act, 2007 (ESA)
- they are listed as invasive under federal or provincial legislation and regulations; and/or
- they are not included on the allowed baitfish species list in the Ontario Fishery Regulations, 2017 (OFRs)
Additionally, there are species that require caution for use as baitfishes, as they are species that, although legal, can be easily confused with illegal species.
Baitfishes may be collected by individuals possessing a resident fishing licence, or by licensed commercial baitfish harvesters. Areas supporting extirpated, endangered or threatened species at risk fishes listed on schedule 1 of SARA or identified on national aquatic species at risk maps should be avoided. If any species at risk are encountered during baitfish collection they should immediately be released alive in the location they were found. The commercial baitfish industry in Ontario is comprised of over 1,100 licensed harvesters and dealers. The bait resource and industry is managed by the province through licensing, legal species lists, log books, annual reporting and best management practices. In addition, harvesting takes place in prescribed geographic areas and is based on principles intended to protect baitfishes and their habitat into the future.
It is imperative that all commercial and recreational baitfish harvesters are aware of, and adhere to, all federal and provincial laws and regulations pertaining to this activity. In addition, all baitfish users should understand the potential impacts of the careless collection, use, and disposal of baitfishes to minimize or eliminate such impacts.
By the end of this Primer, you will:
- understand the federal and Ontario legislation and regulations pertinent to the use of baitfishes
- be able to identify small fish species
- be able to distinguish between legal and illegal baitfishes
- recognize the importance of baitfish habitat
- understand the potential impacts of improper baitfish use; and,
- understand how to minimize negative impacts to our aquatic ecosystems
The help and direction provided by Harold Harvey (University of Toronto) was invaluable in the production of this Primer. The authors would also like to thank the following for their input and assistance: Karen Gray, Debbie Ming, Jason Barnucz, Andries Blouw, Andrew Drake, Theresa Nichols, Todd Morris, Shawn Staton, Heather Surette, Hilary Prince, and Timothy Gingera (Fisheries and Oceans Canada); E.J. Crossman and Erling Holm (Royal Ontario Museum); Debbie Bowen and Doug Jensen (Minnesota Sea Grant Program); Chris Brousseau, Alan Dextrase, Beth Brownson, Scott Gibson, Mark Robbins, Derrick Humber, David Copplestone, and Brenda Koenig (Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry); Madolyn Mandrak (University of Guelph); and Dustin Boczek.
- University of Minnesota Sea Grant Program: Rusty Crayfish
- Bonna Rouse, Allset Inc.: Front cover and general non-species specific illustrations
- Joseph R. Tomelleri: Black Redhorse, Blackstripe Topminnow, Bluntnose Minnow, Eastern Sand Darter, Fantail Darter, Ghost Shiner, Gizzard Shad, Gravel Chub, Greenside Darter, Johnny Darter, Lake Chubsucker, Least Darter, Mottled Sculpin, Ninespine Stickleback, Pugnose Minnow, River Darter, River Redhorse, River Shiner, Round Goby, Ruffe, Silver Chub, Silver Shiner, and Spotted Sucker
- Carlyn Iverson, Absolute Science Studios: Black Carp, Tench, and Tubenose Goby
- Emily S. Damstra: Bighead Carp, Grass Carp, and Silver Carp
- New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), Bureau of Fisheries, Albany, NY: All other fish illustrations found in The Baitfish Primer
Summary of legislation and regulations related to baitfishes
Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act
Capture of baitfishes
Anglers: Residents with a valid recreational fishing license issued under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act (FWCA) may capture their own baitfishes for personal use using traps and dipnets following all conditions in Ontario's Recreational Fishing Regulations Summary. The Ontario Fishery Regulations, 2007 (OFRs) allows them to set a legal minnow trap (no more than 51 cm × 31 cm; labelled with name and address of owner) or capture fishes with a dipnet (no more than 183 cm in diameter or along each side, and during daylight hours only). The capture and use of bait is not allowed in some waters; the latest version of the Ontario Recreational Fishing Regulations Summary should be consulted for Zone regulations and exceptions. Baitfishes may be caught for personal use only and anglers must have no more than 120 baitfishes in their possession at any time, which includes both caught and purchased baitfish. Any live holding box or trap must be clearly marked with the name and address of the user, and must be visible without raising it from the water.
Commercial Bait Harvesters: The taking, transporting, buying and selling of baitfishes is authorized for the holder of a commercial bait licence issued by the province under the FWCA and in keeping with the requirements under the OFRs and FWCA. The means of taking baitfishes may be specified on the individual commercial bait licence. Licensed harvesters or dealers are required to record harvest and/or maintain receipt of baitfishes in log books and submit annual reports.
Use of baitfishes
Anglers can find a complete up-to-date listing of which fish species can be used as live baitfish in the OFRs.
Species listed as invasive fishes under the OFRs cannot be possessed alive. The use of bait is prohibited in some waters. No crayfishes, salamanders, live fishes or live leeches can be brought into Ontario for use as bait. It is illegal to release any live bait, or dump the contents of a bait container (including the water) into any waters or within 30 m of any waters.
In addition, fishes listed as Extirpated, Endangered, Threatened or Special Concern under either the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) or the Ontario Endangered Species Act, 2007 cannot be used as baitfishes. Species considered sportfishes cannot be used as live bait.
The legal status of baitfish species may change over time. Be sure to check the latest version of the Ontario Recreational Fishing Regulations Summary for up-to-date information. Go to Fishing with live bait.
Federal Fisheries Act
In Canada, this Act makes it unlawful to carry out any work, undertaking or activity that results in serious harm to fish that are part of, or support, a commercial, recreational or Aboriginal fishery, unless authorized by the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Serious harm to fish is defined in this Act as the death of fish or any permanent alteration to, or destruction of, fish habitat.
Website: Fisheries Act.
Federal Aquatic Invasive Species Regulations
In May 2015, Aquatic Invasive Species Regulations were added to the federal Fisheries Act to prevent the importation and spread of aquatic invasive species. Under the regulations, the importation, possession, transport, and release of listed species is prohibited unless they are dead and, in some cases, eviscerated (gutted).
Website: Aquatic Invasive Species Regulations
Federal Species at Risk Act
The federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) came into force in June 2004, and aims to protect native wildlife at risk, including fishes, from becoming lost from the wild, to provide for their recovery and to manage species of special concern. Under Section 32 of SARA, general prohibitions apply to fishes designated as extirpated, endangered or threatened. Fishes designated as such cannot be killed, harmed, harassed, captured, taken, possessed, collected, bought, sold or traded and the habitat that has been deemed vital to their survival or recovery is also protected. Areas supporting extirpated, endangered or threatened species at risk fishes listed on schedule 1 of SARA or identified on national aquatic species at risk maps (dfo-mpo.gc.ca/species-especes/sara-lep/map-carte/index-eng.html) should be avoided. If any species at risk are encountered during baitfish collection they should immediately be released alive in the location they were found. The list of species on schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act can be accessed on the following website below.
Website: Species at Risk Act
Ontario Invasive Species Act, 2015
In November 2015, the provincial Invasive Species Act, 2015 (ISA) came into effect in Ontario to prevent and control the spread of invasive species in the natural environment. The Act includes a list of prohibited species not established, and restricted species established, in the province that are illegal to possess, transport, or release.
Website: Ontario Invasive Species Act.
Ontario Endangered Species Act, 2007
In June 2008, the provincial Endangered Species Act, 2007 (ESA) came into effect in Ontario to protect at risk species and their habitats, to promote the recovery of species that are at risk, and to promote stewardship activities to assist in the protection and recovery of species that are at risk. Endangered, threatened or extirpated species, and their habitats, receive legal protection under the ESA. The Act calls for the creation of recovery strategies for endangered and threatened species, and management plans for special concern species.
Website: Ontario Endangered Species Act
Potential impacts of harvest and use of baitfishes
Harvesting may impact the ecosystems from which baitfishes are taken (termed donor ecosystems) and the ecosystems in which baitfishes are used (termed recipient ecosystems).
Impacts on donor ecosystems
Since the early 1900s, there were concerns regarding the depletion of the baitfish supply, followed by concerns about the declining numbers of sportfishes as a result of forage fish depletion. If carried out carelessly, baitfish harvesting may directly alter the abundance of targeted (legal baitfishes) and non-targeted (illegal baitfishes, such as game, invasive, or at-risk species) species in the donor ecosystem. Removal of a substantial number of legal baitfishes could potentially have short- and long-term effects on the abundance of forage fishes. To minimize such impacts, bait harvest areas are assigned to specific commercial licensees who manage the resource for sustainability. Commercial bait harvesters accomplish this by cycling harvesting locations within their bait harvest area, so that no one location is overharvested. Resident anglers should follow this practice as well to help ensure sustainability of the resource.
Care should be taken to safely return non-targeted species (other than invasive fishes) to the water immediately. If non-targeted species are not immediately returned, these populations could suffer an increased mortality, which may alter species interactions within that ecosystem. Such alterations may result in changes in species composition, increases in invertebrate (e.g., crayfishes) size and abundance, and decreases in productivity, abundance and growth rates of other fish species (including sportfishes).
Depletions in baitfish populations may also impact native freshwater mussels. Mussels have a complex life cycle that requires attachment when very young to a host, usually a fish. If large numbers of baitfishes are removed and the number of potential hosts decreases, mussel populations may decline.
The techniques used to harvest baitfishes may impact the habitat that all aquatic organisms (including baitfishes) depend on for the necessities of life. Baitfishes are typically harvested using seine nets or traps. Seining has greater impacts on habitat, as it is an active method that may cause uprooting of aquatic vegetation, removal of woody debris, and disturbance of bottom substrates - all important habitat components required by aquatic organisms for survival.
Traps leave a smaller ecological footprint. This technique is more passive, resulting in smaller disturbance to the surrounding habitat. Many commercial bait harvesters use traps, especially in vegetated areas. Traps and dipnets (which also have minimal impacts) are the only harvesting methods allowed to be used by resident anglers.
Impacts on recipient ecosystems
The impacts of fishes (baitfishes and other species) illegally released into recipient ecosystems have been well documented and can be summarized in four categories.
- Food-web changes: Introduced species have been shown to negatively impact food webs - the links between predators (e.g. sportfishes) and prey (e.g. baitfishes). Introduced fishes, such as the Round Goby, can out-compete native species for food and other resources, or even prey on native species and their eggs. These impacts may reduce the abundance of native prey that would, in turn, reduce the abundance of the sportfishes dependent upon these prey species for food.
- Habitat changes: The behaviour of introduced species can cause changes to habitat. For example, the destruction of aquatic vegetation and increased turbidity caused by the feeding and spawning of the Common Carp is well documented. Native species relying on that habitat would be greatly impacted by such changes.
- Introduction of disease: Diseases and parasites may be transferred to native species through introduced species. Exposure to these diseases or parasites may lead to decreased abundance of native species. The spread of “whirling disease” from stocked trout to wild trout is an example of this problem. The spread of disease may occur through baitfish transfer; however, the extent and impact of such transfers is not well understood.
- Genetic impacts : Native species are well adapted to their environment. Introduced individuals, not adapted to their new environment, may spawn with native individuals of the same species. Their offspring may look the same, but be less adapted to their environment. Introduced individuals may also spawn with native individuals of closely related species. Their offspring, termed hybrids, may be less adapted to their environment, or may be unable to reproduce. In most cases, spawning between introduced and native species will lead to the decreased abundance of native species.
These impacts are not limited to introduced baitfishes. The water in bait buckets may also carry microscopic invasive species, such as Spiny Waterflea, Fish Hook Waterflea, and Zebra Mussel larvae. These invasive species also have harmful impacts on our aquatic ecosystems.
Anyone with information about the unlawful movement of live fishes or the unlawful stocking of fishes, is encouraged to call the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry resource violation reporting line at 1-877-TIPS-MNR (847-7667).
Anyone finding species that they suspect are invasive should remove and freeze them, and report their finding to the toll-free Invading Species Hotline at 1-800-563-7711. The Hotline is a partnership of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.
Importance of baitfish habitat
Baitfishes, like all fishes, require a place to meet their needs for food, shelter, and reproduction throughout their entire life. Although habitat requirements may be different for each stage in the life cycle of baitfishes, it is important that all needs are met. If, as a result of habitat degradation or loss, one or more of these requirements are not met at any point during their life cycle, their numbers will drop and the population may die out. The abundance of baitfishes is directly related to the quality of their habitat. Therefore, baitfishes can act as indicators of the environmental health of their habitat. A healthy baitfish population provides an important food source for many fish species, including commercial and sport fishes. By providing baitfishes with habitat that includes clean water, adequate food supply, cover, appropriate spawning and rearing grounds, and accessible migration routes, we safeguard these important resources for the baitfish, commercial, and sport industries, and also to help ensure a healthy ecosystem.
Some threats to baitfish habitat
Many of our actions threaten baitfish habitat. For example, agricultural and forestry activities can affect the quality and quantity of aquatic habitat through damage to in-stream habitat and the introduction of silt and other harmful materials into the water. General construction activities, such as building bridges and culverts, may also affect physical habitat and water quality, as well as impede movement of baitfishes among different habitats.
Other activities along shorelines, such as erosion control projects, marina developments and vegetation removal, may impact baitfish habitat by altering the natural cover and substrates of shoreline habitat. Changing water levels due to climate change and water-taking activities also directly affect the quality and quantity of baitfish habitat.
Protecting baitfish habitat
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has developed a webpage to provide advice and guidelines on environmentally sound practices when working in and around water. The ‘Projects Near Water' webpage provides common measures and best practices to avoid and reduce, or eliminate, impacts to fishes and fish habitat.
Pictorial key of Ontario fish families
Fish families featured in the baitfish primer
- Numbered lines relate to anatomical features characteristic of the fish family
Fish families NOT featured in The Baitfish Primer as there are no members considered legal baitfish. Members of these fish families can be easily distinguished from legal baitfishes.
- Species are grouped by evolutionary order of families, followed by groups of similar-looking species within families
- The following information is presented in the species accounts (modified from Holm et al. 2010):
- Characteristics: anatomical features used to distinguish species from similar species
- Size: Ontario average; Ontario record
- Similar species: other species with which the species may be confused
- Ontario distribution: general distribution in Ontario
- Habitat: brief description of habitat used by the species
- Use as bait: description of use as bait if it is a legal baitfish, or the reason for its prohibited or cautionary use
- The species are also labeled as Legal, Caution or Illegal based on the following criteria:
- Legal: listed as a species of baitfish in the Ontario Fishery Regulations, 2007 (OFRs) and not easily confused with illegal species.
- Caution: while not illegal, its use is considered cautionary, as it may be easily confused with illegal species.
- Illegal: the use of the species is prohibited as:
- it is listed as Extirpated, Endangered, Threatened, or of Special Concern under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) or the Ontario Endangered Species Act, 2007 (ESA)
- it is not listed as legal bait species under the OFRs; or
- it is listed as an invasive fish species in the under federal or provincial legislation and regulations
Carps and minnows
Suckers and redhorses
Salmon, trouts and whitefishes
New world silversides
Perches and darters
What you can do to minimize impacts to aquatic ecosystems
- Follow the latest version of the Ontario Fishery Regulations Summary (2017) as it pertains to the harvest, sale, and use of baitfishes.
- Do not release any live bait or dump the contents of a bait bucket, including the water, into any waters or within 30 m of any waters - it is illegal.
- Be cautious in timing of baitfish harvesting. 95% of legal baitfishes in this Primer are known to spawn in Ontario during the spring months (April-June).
- Do not over-harvest one area.
- Use traps instead of nets (note only licensed harvesters can use seine nets), especially in vegetated areas. Resident anglers must only use traps or dipnets.
- Remember, not all small fishes are “minnows”. “Minnows” refers to a specific family of fishes, the Carps and Minnows family (Cyprinidae). All fish species, including sportfishes, are small at some time during their lives.
- Never release species into a waterbody from which they were not harvested.
- If you suspect a species at risk has been harvested, return it immediately to the place of capture.
- Avoid transfer of introduced species - destroy all unused bait at least 30 m from a waterbody.
- Report sightings or capture of introduced species to the Invading Species Hotline at 1-800-563-7711 or visit www.invadingspecies.com. The Hotline is operated by the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters in partnership with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. Any invasive species caught should be immediately destroyed and not released back into any waters.
- To report a natural resources violation, please call 1-877-TIPS-MNR (847-7667) toll-free anytime. You can also call Crime Stoppers anonymously at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).
- Boschung, H. T., J.D. Williams, D.W. Gotshall, D.K. Caldwell and M.C. Caldwell. 1989. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Fishes, Whales, and Dolphins. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY
- Coad, B.W. 1995. Encyclopedia of Canadian Fishes. Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, ON and Canadian Sportfishing Productions Inc., Burlington, ON
- Holm, E., N. E. Mandrak and M. E. Burridge. 2010. The ROM Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Ontario. Royal Ontario Museum. 468 pp
- Lavett-Smith, C. 1994. Fish Watching: An Outdoor Guide to Freshwater Fishes. Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, NY
- Lui, K., B. Butler, M. Allen, J. da Silva and B. Brownson. 2008. Field Guide to Aquatic Invasive Species. Queens Printer for Ontario. www.invadingspecies.com
- Moyle, P.B. 1993. Fish: An Enthusiast's Guide. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
- Page, L.M. and B.M. Burr. 2011. A Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes: North America North of Mexico. Peterson Field Guides. Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, NY
- Scott, W.B. and E.J. Crossman. 1973. Freshwater Fishes of Canada. Bulletin of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada 184. (1999 Reprint, Galt House Publications, Oakville, ON)
- DFO Publications: Projects Near Water, Measures to Avoid and Mitigate Harm, Information about Fish Species and Habitats and other DFO publications – www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca. Follow the links to Publications under “About Us”, Projects Near Water under “Ecosystems” and Fish Species Details under “Species”
- Bait Association of Ontario and Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. 2005. The Comprehensive Bait Guide for Eastern Canada, the Great Lakes Region and Northeastern United States. University of Toronto Press. 437 pp
- Bait Association of Ontario and Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. 2005. The Essential Bait Guide for Eastern Canada, the Great Lakes Region and Northeastern United States. University of Toronto Press. 193 pp
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
867 Lakeshore Road
Burlington, Ontario L7S 1A1
Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters
4601 Guthrie Drive, PO Box 2800
Peterborough, ON K9J 8L5
705-748-6324 Fax: 705-748-9577
Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry
Robinson Pl South Tower 4th Flr S
300 Water Street
Peterborough ON K9J 8M5
1-800-667-1940; Fax 705-755-3233
mnr.gov.on.ca or contact your local office
- Date modified: