Photo of the Spotted Gar in its natural habitat

Photo: William Glass

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 Spotted Gar (Lepisosteus oculatus) in Ontario was completed on January 28, 2016.

Spotted Gar is a large (up to 76 cm in length) predatory fish with a narrow body and elongated snout. It is olive green with large brown spots along the sides of the body and dull silver below.

Protecting and recovering Spotted Gar

Spotted Gar 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.

Spotted Gar is only found in eastern North America, in the Mississippi, Great Lakes and Gulf Coast drainages. Less than one percent of the species' global range is in Ontario. Spotted Gar is at the northern extent of its range in southern Ontario and was never common. The current range of Spotted Gar in Ontario includes three coastal wetlands of Lake Erie: Point Pelee National Park, Rondeau Bay, and Long Point Bay. Additional survey efforts have resulted in recent records of Spotted Gar which include Rondeau Bay tributaries (Mill Creek, Flat Creek, Wood Drain, McLeans Drain, and Indian Creek) and Turkey Point. These recent records may have been individuals from known populations at Rondeau Bay and Long Point. Recent records also exist for East Lake (2007) and Hamilton Harbour (2010) in Lake Ontario and Muddy Creek (2011) in Lake Erie, but only one individual was confirmed at each location, and it is unknown whether reproducing populations exist at these locations. Historic records (prior to 1995) include single specimens from Lake St. Clair and the Bay of Quinte in Lake Ontario.

Spotted Gar spawn in May and June, when water temperatures reach 21° to 26°C, in shallow water (less than 1 m) containing dense aquatic vegetation, such as marshes and flooded riparian areas. Adult Spotted Gar are found in shallow (less than 5 m), warm waters of coastal wetlands, quiet pools and bays with abundant aquatic vegetation.

The primary threats to Spotted Gar are habitat loss and degradation. Activities that cause habitat loss include dredging, removal of aquatic vegetation, wetland filling, installation of in-water structures (e.g., piers or groynes) and shoreline hardening (structures built parallel to shore for erosion control). Aquatic vegetation is removed for various purposes, such as maintaining navigation channels, fishing, or controlling invasive plant species. This reduction in vegetation can negatively affect the Spotted Gar’s foraging success as an ambush predator. In addition to the loss of cover, the removal process can disturb sediments and create turbid conditions or introduce potentially harmful chemicals to the water if herbicides are used. Excessive sediment and nutrients entering the water can increase turbidity (i.e., the cloudiness of the water), which can affect respiration, vision, and abundance of prey and can smother Spotted Gar eggs. Increased levels of nutrients in the water (e.g., nitrates and phosphorus from agricultural or residential developments) can alter Spotted Gar habitat by causing algal blooms or changes to dissolved oxygen levels which can reduce prey abundance and make the area unsuitable for Spotted Gar. Elevated nutrient levels also lead to a decline in vegetation diversity as the native species of wetland vegetation preferred by Spotted Gar are outcompeted by plants such as European Common Reed (Phragmites australis ssp. australis).

A number of non-native species (e.g., Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio) and Round Goby (Neogobius melanostomus)) pose threats to Spotted Gar through competition and restructuring of food webs. A few individual Florida Gar (Lepisosteus platyrhincus) have also been found in the Great Lakes basin and may threaten Spotted Gar through hybridization and competition, although the likelihood of Florida Gar becoming established is unknown. Other knowledge gaps exist that may affect the recovery of the species including the extent of competition between Spotted Gar and the more abundant Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus).

In some cases, natural or man-made barriers may assist with the maintenance of Spotted Gar habitat and may provide protection from predation, competition and exotic species. In these circumstances, breaches in barriers could cause negative impacts on the species. Conversely, physical barriers such as improperly placed culverts, may lead to fragmentation of populations and prevent access to suitable habitat.

Areas of suitable habitat for Spotted Gar are limited in Ontario and are being degraded by activities that modify the habitat. Methods to address the most significant causes of habitat loss and degradation are generally well understood. As a result, the approaches to recovery will focus on filling key knowledge gaps, reducing threats to the species and its habitat, and working collaboratively to raise awareness levels.

Government’s recovery goal

The government’s goal for the recovery of Spotted Gar in Ontario is to maintain self-sustaining populations at existing locations and enable natural increases.

Actions

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-led actions

To help protect and recover Spotted Gar, the government will directly undertake the following actions:

  • Continue to implement the Ontario Invasive Species Strategic Plan to address the invasive species (e.g., Common Carp and Round Goby) that threaten Spotted Gar.
  • Educate other agencies and authorities involved in planning and environmental assessment processes on the protection requirements under the ESA.
  • Encourage the submission of Spotted Gar data to the Ministry’s central repository at the Natural Heritage Information Centre.
  • Undertake communications and outreach to increase public awareness of species at risk in Ontario.
  • Protect Spotted Gar and its habitat through the ESA.
  • Develop direction to provide greater clarity to proponents and partners on the areas of general habitat protected under the ESA for species at risk fish.
  • Support conservation, agency, municipal and industry partners, and Indigenous communities and organizations to undertake activities to protect and recover Spotted Gar. Support will be provided where appropriate through funding, agreements, permits (including conditions) and/or advisory services.
  • Encourage collaboration, and establish and communicate annual priority actions for government support in order to reduce duplication of efforts.

Government-supported actions

The government endorses the following actions as being necessary for the protection and recovery of Spotted Gar. 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.

Focus area: Research and monitoring

Objective: Increase the level of understanding of the population distribution, abundance, and habitat needs of Spotted Gar and factors that may threaten the species.

More detailed data on the distribution and abundance of populations in Ontario and increased knowledge of the habitat needs of all life-stages of Spotted Gar will also help improve the implementation of protection and management approaches for the species and its habitat. Recent survey efforts have identified additional records of Spotted Gar but they may have been individuals from known populations. Additional survey effort in historical areas and locations with suitable habitat may support a clearer understanding of the species' distribution and current interactions between populations. Research into the habitat requirements of juvenile Spotted Gar will support the identification of target areas for habitat improvement. Actions that benefit juvenile Spotted Gar may have the greatest influence on population growth. In addition, evaluating potential threats to the species will help to identify whether targeted management actions are required to address them.

Actions:

  1. (High) Develop and implement a standardized monitoring protocol at all known locations of Spotted Gar to detect changes in populations (e.g., abundance, demographics, etc.) and habitat conditions.
  2. (High) Determine the seasonal habitat needs of all life-stages (with a priority on the juvenile stage) of Spotted Gar in Ontario to inform habitat management actions.
  3. Conduct targeted surveys in areas of suitable habitat and locations where the species historically occurred to determine the current distribution and abundance of Spotted Gar.
  4. Evaluate potential threats to Spotted Gar to determine:
    • whether existing populations of Spotted Gar are threatened by low genetic diversity due to hydrological, ecological, or genetic barriers;
    • the effects on Spotted Gar from competition with the more abundant Longnose Gar; and,
    • the likelihood that the exotic Florida Gar will become established in the habitat of Spotted Gar in Ontario and if so, whether it presents a risk of hybridization.
  1. Evaluate whether limited removal of aquatic vegetation in areas that have experienced vegetation overgrowth may benefit Spotted Gar.

Focus area: Protection and management

Objective: Maintain or improve the quality of habitat available for Spotted Gar in Ontario.

Dredging, filling of wetlands, removal of aquatic vegetation, and shoreline development in Lake Erie have caused significant losses of Spotted Gar habitat in the past, and the shallow, vegetated habitats that remain are rapidly disappearing. In addition, the species is sensitive to increases in sediment, turbidity, and nutrient levels in the water. As a result, actions to restore degraded habitat, or to expand or improve the quality of habitat available to Spotted Gar populations will be essential to the recovery of the species.

Actions:

  1. (High) Work with stakeholders, landowners, and Indigenous communities and organizations to minimize threats in and around the species' habitat by encouraging:
    • implementation of natural shoreline stabilization techniques to prevent erosion;
    • development and implementation of Environmental Farm Plans and Nutrient Management Plans; and,
    • implementation of best management practices to reduce siltation, turbidity, and nutrient loading when conducting activities in or near the habitat of the species.
  1. Engage in aquatic ecosystem recovery efforts, continue riparian and wetland rehabilitation at highly degraded sites and evaluate the effectiveness of the methods employed to improve the quality of habitat for Spotted Gar. Collaborate with existing organizations on recovery efforts where possible.
  2. Identify and implement methods to minimize disruption of sediment and the use of herbicides that may harm Spotted Gar during the removal or control of overgrowths of aquatic vegetation or invasive plant species (e.g., European Common Reed).

Focus area: Awareness

Objective: Increase level of awareness and engagement amongst organizations, landowners, land managers, and Indigenous communities and organizations in protecting and rehabilitating Spotted Gar habitat.

A number of organizations and working groups are already engaged in implementing approaches to restore ecosystem quality and function for fish species at risk in Lake Erie. Collaborating with these organizations and connecting with landowners, land managers, and Indigenous communities and organizations will support coordinated implementation of actions and prevent duplication of efforts. Collaboration will also help to reach a larger and more diverse audience with messaging on ways to protect Spotted Gar habitat.

Actions:

  1. Collaborate with organizations, landowners, land managers, and Indigenous communities and organizations to promote awareness of Spotted Gar among people engaged in agricultural, stewardship, fishing, and shoreline modification activities in or near coastal wetlands (and tributaries) of Lake Erie 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.

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 Spotted Gar.

Acknowledgement

We would like to thank all those who participated in the development of the Recovery Strategy for Spotted Gar (Lepisosteus oculatus) in Ontario for their dedication to protecting and recovering species at risk.

For additional information:

Visit the species at risk website www.ontario.ca/speciesatrisk
Contact your MNRF district office
Contact the Natural Resources Information Centre
Telephone: 1-800-667-1940
TTY: 1-866-686-6072
Email: mnr.nric.mnr@ontario.ca
Website: Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry

The government response statement for Spotted Gar is available in PDF format upon request. Please email PDF requests to recovery.planning@ontario.ca.

Updated: June 18, 2021
Published: October 28, 2016