The baitfish primer
A guide to identifying and protecting Ontario's baitfishes
by Becky Cudmore and Nicolas E. Mandrak
Table of Contents
- Complete Text
- 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
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).
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.
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