Cover photos credit: Dustin Boczek, DFO


Special Concern (Great Lakes - Upper St. Lawrence populations)

"Special Concern" means the species lives in the wild in Ontario, is not endangered or threatened, but may become threatened or endangered due to a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats.

Not at Risk (Saskatchewan - Nelson River populations)

These populations are "Not at Risk". This means that the populations are not endangered or threatened, and are not at risk of becoming threatened based on current biological knowledge and identified threats.

Date added to the Species at Risk in Ontario List

Northern Sunfish (Great Lakes – Upper St. Lawrence populations) - June 2, 2017

Read the assessment report (PDF)

What it looks like

The Northern Sunfish is a small (about 130 mm long), typical looking member of the sunfish family (Centrarchidae). It has a deep, laterally compressed and olive coloured body with bright blue and red markings. Although the Northern Sunfish looks similar to other sunfish, particularly the Longear Sunfish and Pumpkinseed, experts can tell Northern Sunfish apart by looking at its opercular "ear" flap, which is angled upwards and has distinct red and orange markings.

Where it lives

In Ontario, the Northern Sunfish lives in shallow vegetated areas of quiet, slow flowing rivers and streams, as well as warm lakes and ponds, with sandy banks or rocky bottoms. Northern Sunfish prefer to be near aquatic vegetation where they can avoid strong currents.

During the breeding season, males guard their nests which are made by digging saucer like depressions in gravel or cobble substrates. It eats mostly aquatic insect larvae and algae, but is known for feeding at the water’s surface more frequently than other sunfish.

Where it’s been found in Ontario

In Canada, the Northern Sunfish only lives in Ontario and Quebec. In Ontario, Northern Sunfish is concentrated in two geographic regions which are separated by nearly 800 km. The Saskatchewan - Nelson River Populations are found in northwestern Ontario, while the Great Lakes - Upper St. Lawrence Populations are found throughout southern Ontario including waters flowing into Lake Huron, Georgian Bay, Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, as well as rivers and small lakes in eastern Ontario.

What threatens it

The main threat to Northern Sunfish (Great Lakes – Upper St. Lawrence populations) is declining habitat quality. This species likes slow-moving, clean water with plenty of aquatic vegetation and is not tolerant of muddy or polluted waters. This species is also sensitive to the removal of aquatic vegetation. In many places where the Northern Sunfish is found in the Great Lakes region, the water is becoming polluted due to soil running into waterways from nearby agricultural areas and development activities.

Action we are taking

Special concern species do not receive species or habitat protection, but may be eligible for grants to help with their protection and recovery.

What you can do

Report a sighting

Report a sighting of an endangered animal or plant to the Natural Heritage Information Centre. Photographs with specific locations or mapping coordinates are always helpful.


Volunteer with your local nature club or provincial park to participate in surveys or stewardship work focused on species at risk.

Be a good steward

  • Private land owners have a very important role to play in species recovery. If you find Northern Sunfish in a watercourse on or adjacent to your property, you may be eligible for stewardship programs that support the protection and recovery of species at risk and their habitats.
  • Farmers and land owners can help improve fish habitat and keep Ontario’s water safe and clean by maintaining natural vegetation next to creeks and rivers, and keeping pollution and soil from washing into Ontario’s rivers. You can find more information about programs and funding assistance for eligible farmers from the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association website.

Report illegal activity

Report any illegal activity related to plants and wildlife to 1-877-847-7667.

Quick facts

  • Northern Sunfish are intolerant of siltation and turbidity and are considered an indicator species of habitat quality.
  • Scientists used to consider Northern Sunfish a subspecies of the Longear Sunfish, but it is now considered its own species.
  • This species is similar in appearance to other sunfish species such as Bluegill and Pumpkinseed.
  • Males of this species are known to make a grunting sound during the breeding season.