Channel Darter

Photo: Mike Parna

Protecting and recovering species at risk in ontario

Species at risk recovery is a key part of protecting Ontario’s biodiversity. The Endangered Species Act, 2007 (ESA) is the Government of Ontario’s legislative commitment to protecting and recovering species at risk and their habitats.

Under the ESA, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (the Ministry) must ensure that a recovery strategy is prepared for each species that is listed as endangered or threatened. A recovery strategy provides science-based advice to government on what is required to achieve recovery of a species.

Within nine months after a recovery strategy is prepared, the ESA requires the Ministry to publish a statement summarizing the government’s intended actions and priorities in response to the recovery strategy. The response statement is the government’s policy response to the scientific advice provided in the recovery strategy. In addition to the strategy, the government response statement considered (where available) input from stakeholders, other jurisdictions, Indigenous communities and organizations, and members of the public. It reflects the best available local and scientific knowledge, including Traditional Ecological Knowledge, at this time and may be adapted if new information becomes available. In implementing the actions in the response statement, the ESA allows the Ministry to determine what is feasible, taking into account social and economic factors.

The Recovery Strategy for the Channel Darter (Percina copelandi) in Ontario was completed on December 14, 2016.

Protecting and recovering Channel Darter

Channel Darter is listed as a threatened species under the ESA, which protects both the fish and its habitat. The ESA prohibits harm or harassment of the species and damage or destruction of its habitat without authorization. Such authorization would require that conditions established by the Ministry be met.

Channel Darter has a wide but discontinuous distribution in North America. It occurs west of the Appalachian Mountains, in the Mississippi drainage, and in the southern Great Lakes basin. In Canada, Channel Darter is found in the provinces of Ontario and Québec. In Ontario, the species occurs in the southern portion of the province: its current range includes the Detroit River, the western basin of Lake Erie (Point Pelee), tributaries to the Bay of Quinte in Lake Ontario (Trent River, Salmon River, and Moira River system, including Skootamatta and Black Rivers) and the Ottawa River and a connected tributary (Little Rideau Creek). The species historically occurred in Lake St. Clair, the St. Clair River, and the central and eastern basins of Lake Erie, however recent survey efforts suggest these populations may be extirpated. Channel Darter have limited dispersal ability due to their small size and the disconnected nature of populations.

Channel Darter are warm water bottom-dwelling fish that use specific substrates to carry out their life processes. They are known to use gravel and coarse sand beaches in Lake Erie; gravel or cobble shoals and riffles in large rivers; and, riffles and pools in small to medium-sized rivers. They require slow to moderate currents or wave-washed beaches, and good water quality including low turbidity levels. Specific habitat requirements related to water temperature, flow and substrate are required for the Channel Darter to spawn successfully. The habitat of juvenile life stages and lake-dwelling populations are not well understood. Activities that have an impact on survival in the first few years of life or on reproductive potential have the greatest impact on population growth.

Invasive species (in particular Round Goby) are thought to present a serious threat to Channel Darter through competition for food and other resources as well as through the introduction of new parasites and pathogens. The Round Goby is a small bottom-dwelling fish native to Eurasia that has been connected to the declines of several other species of benthic fishes. The species is now widespread in habitats currently and formerly occupied by Channel Darter in Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair, as well as in the Trent River and at the mouths of the Bay of Quinte tributaries where Channel Darter is found. The use of live baitfish may also play a role in the distribution and spread of invasive species through transfer from bait buckets.

Habitat loss and alterations also pose a threat to Channel Darter, through increased turbidity levels, sediment and nutrient loading, shoreline modifications and altered flow regimes. Improper agricultural practices and urbanization may increase turbidity levels as well as nutrient and sediment loading, which in turn, impact the species’ ability to find food and locate spawning sites, reduce oxygen levels (including via algal blooms in lake environments) and spawning substrate quality, and may smother eggs. Reductions in water quality may also impact the availability of food resources. Shoreline modifications such as hardening, filling, dredging and other alterations for human use disrupt natural coastal processes including the erosion and deposition of the beach sand material used by the species. Altered flow regimes resulting from in-stream barriers for hydropower production, flood control, and navigational purposes may result in increased stress as well as interrupt spawning behaviour and cause stranding and subsequent mortality. Conversely, in-stream barriers may also provide some protection against the spread of invasive species and predators.

Contaminants and toxic substances may also impact Channel Darter through direct toxicity, impacts on prey, or impaired development, especially in Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River. However the species’ sensitivities to such substances are unknown. Bait harvest has also been suggested as a potential threat but the probability of incidental capture is believed to be low.

The provincial recovery strategy recommends ensuring the survival of the self-sustaining populations at five specific locations: Little Rideau Creek/Ottawa River, Salmon River, Trent River, within the Moira River system and at Point Pelee on Lake Erie. The species has been recently confirmed in the Detroit River, the status in the remainder of Lake Erie-Lake St. Clair drainage is unconfirmed, and ongoing threats in historically occupied areas are difficult to remediate (i.e. invasive species, shoreline alterations). Given these considerations, efforts to recover Channel Darter will be focused on gaining further understanding of current status and maintaining self-sustaining populations at existing locations, rather than restoring the species in formerly occupied habitats. Approaches to recovery will include filling key knowledge gaps, reducing threats to Channel Darter and their habitat where they presently occur, and increasing levels of engagement and awareness.


Protecting and recovering species at risk is a shared responsibility. No single agency or organization has the knowledge, authority or financial resources to protect and recover all of Ontario’s species at risk. Successful recovery requires inter-governmental co-operation and the involvement of many individuals, organizations and communities. In developing the government response statement, the Ministry considered what actions are feasible for the government to lead directly and what actions are feasible for the government to support its conservation partners to undertake.

Government-supported actions

The government endorses the following actions as being necessary for the protection and recovery of Channel Darter. Actions identified as “high” will be given priority consideration for funding under the ESA. Where reasonable, the government will also consider the priority assigned to these actions when reviewing and issuing authorizations under the ESA. Other organizations are encouraged to consider these priorities when developing projects or mitigation plans related to species at risk. The government will focus its support on these high-priority actions over the next five years.

Channel Darter is threatened by habitat loss and alteration across its Ontario range. The status of populations, as well as the threats which have resulted in decline, particularly in Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair, are not well understood. Understanding where the species is present and the habitat requirements for all life stages and environments are critical to the protection of the species and its habitat. Implementation of a standardized monitoring program will aid in understanding the status of the species, the effectiveness of recovery efforts, and determine whether habitat management actions may be required.


  1. (High) Conduct targeted surveys in areas of suitable habitat and locations where the species historically occurred (e.g., Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair, Detroit River), or has a high probability of being present, in order to determine current distribution and abundance.
  2. (High) Determine the habitat needs of all life-stages, with an emphasis on lake-dwelling populations, spawning habitat and the juvenile life stage, to inform habitat protection.
  3. Develop and implement a standardized monitoring program at known locations to detect changes in populations (e.g., abundance, demographics) and habitat conditions, including the presence of invasive species.
  4. Further evaluate potential threats to Channel Darter including: invasive species, algal blooms (Lake Erie populations), toxic substances, water quality tolerance thresholds, and cumulative effects.

Channel Darter depend on good water quality and have specific habitat requirements with regard to water temperature, depth, and flow, as well as substrate type. Reductions in water quality resulting from improper agricultural practices and development activities, as well as shoreline alterations (including hardening and filling) can make habitat unsuitable for Channel Darter. Similarly, altered flow regimes can negatively impact the species by interrupting spawning behaviour and causing physiological stress and mortality. The implementation of actions by stakeholders, landowners, and Indigenous communities and organizations, to reduce these threats and restore degraded habitat are essential to the species recovery.


  1. (High) Minimize threats in and around the species’ habitat by undertaking activities and completing effectiveness monitoring for these activities, including:
    • implementing natural shoreline stabilization techniques to prevent erosion;
    • developing and implementing Environmental Farm Plans and Nutrient Management Plans;
    • developing, implementing and updating best management practices to reduce siltation, turbidity, nutrient loading, and runoff of pollutants; and,
    • developing, implementing and updating best management practices, based on best available information, to minimize the impact of altered flow regimes.

The waterbodies where Channel Darter live and the surrounding landscapes are used for a variety of purposes including recreation, agriculture, and navigation. As a result, a number of groups and organizations are involved in implementing aquatic ecosystem recovery actions and promoting awareness of species at risk and invasive species. Collaboration between organizations will support coordinated implementation of actions, improve efficiency and prevent duplication of efforts.


  1. Collaborate with organizations, landowners, land managers, and Indigenous communities and organizations to promote awareness of Channel Darter among people engaged in agricultural, stewardship, fishing, and shoreline modification activities within the species range by sharing information on:
    • how to identify the species;
    • the species' habitat requirements;
    • protection afforded to the species and its habitat under the ESA; and,
    • actions that can be taken to avoid or minimize impacts to the species and its habitat.
  2. Undertake work consistent with existing provincial programs to promote awareness of invasive species (e.g., Ontario’s Invading Species Awareness Program) in Ontario and implement actions to prevent, respond to, and manage the spread of invasive species.

Implementing actions

Financial support for the implementation of actions may be available through the Species at Risk Stewardship Program. Conservation partners are encouraged to discuss project proposals related to the actions in this response statement with the Ministry. The Ministry can also advise if any authorizations under the ESA or other legislation may be required to undertake the project.

Implementation of the actions may be subject to changing priorities across the multitude of species at risk, available resources and the capacity of partners to undertake recovery activities. Where appropriate, the implementation of actions for multiple species will be co-ordinated across government response statements.

Reviewing progress

The ESA requires the Ministry to conduct a review of progress towards protecting and recovering a species not later than five years from the publication of this response statement. The review will help identify if adjustments are needed to achieve the protection and recovery of Channel Darter.


We would like to thank all those who participated in the development of the Recovery Strategy for the Channel Darter (Percina copelandi) in Ontario for their dedication to protecting and recovering species at risk.

For additional information

The government response statement for Channel Darter is available in PDF format upon request. Please email PDF requests to