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Ichthyology: Research & Projects

The Ichthyology program is currently conducting two primary research projects. The first is aimed at determining the status and taxonomy of Alberta ciscoes (close relatives of whitefishes). Of particular interest is the distribution and evolutionary history of the shortjaw cisco (Coregonus zenithicus) which has, to date, been found at only one Alberta locality—Barrow Lake. The other is an inventory and monitoring program designed to document the status of non-game fishes in northern Alberta and to preserve a physical record of the fish fauna of the province.

Alberta Ciscoes

Ciscoes are members of the trout family that are silvery in colour, have relatively large scales and are primarily plankton feeders. They are close relatives of the more familiar whitefishes. Two species of cisco are currently recognized in Alberta. The cisco or lake herring (Coregonus artedi) is relatively common throughout much of northeastern Alberta. The shortjaw cisco (C. zenithicus) is very rare in the province and has only been found in Barrow Lake. Barrow Lake is located in the Canadian Shield region in the extreme northeastern corner of the province about 60 km north of Fort Chipewyan. Intensive surveys of 23 lakes near Barrow Lake have been unsuccessful in locating other populations of shortjaw cisco. This work has, however, revealed an astounding variety of other forms of cisco including populations resembling blackfin cisco (C. nigripinnis) and least cisco (C. sardinella). The shortjaw cisco population in Barrow Lake appears to be relatively stable, however further monitoring of this population is needed to accurately determine abundance trends for this population.

In 2009, a project was initiated in collaboration with Alberta Fish and Wildlife to investigate options for monitoring the shortjaw cisco population in Barrow Lake without the need to capture specimens with gill nets. Gill netting typically results in high fish mortality—a situation that is undesirable when working with endangered species. Underwater cameras and digital video recorders were deployed in an attempt to observe and record ciscoes in their natural habitat without the need to capture or handle specimens. Unfortunately, despite conducting the study early in the open water season, visibility was poor (about 1 m) and no ciscoes were observed in 5 days of video recording. Plans are currently in the works to use SCUBA to more effectively target suitable habitat in search of this species.

Other research initiatives have involved documentation of the fish fauna of remote regions of northern Alberta. Bioinventory studies have been conducted in and around Bistcho Lake (59° 45'N, 118° 50'W), Andrew Lake (59° 55'N, 110° 05'W), Margaret Lake (58° 56'N, 115° 25'W), Winefred Lake (55° 30'N, 110° 31'W), and the headwaters of the Chinchaga River (57° 20'N, 119° 40'W).