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Future of a lucrative fishery studied

By Costa Maragos Posted: December 21, 2015 6:00 a.m.

Rebecca Eberts onboard the Teresa Maria with Captain Joey Cabral.
Rebecca Eberts onboard the Teresa Maria with Captain Joey Cabral. Photo courtesy of Tom Perry.

It’s tasty and it’s plentiful. Lake Whitefish are found throughout the Great Lakes and almost any lake in Saskatchewan.

U of R Biology student Rebecca Eberts can tell you a lot about Lake Whitefish.

She has just defended her masters thesis, which looks into the ecology of Lake Whitefish in Lake Huron.

Rebecca Eberts

Eberts' Big Catch

Rebecca Eberts has
been widely quoted in
the high-circulation
angling magazine,
In-Fisherman.
Given her whitefish
expertise, she was
asked for tips on
catching this
"phantom" fish.
Her U of R supervisor,
Dr. Chris Somers, says
"the exposure for
Rebecca's research and
for Saskatchewan is
tremendous."

“I’ve come to know this fish really well. How they move. How they eat and how ecologically, culturally, and commercially important they are,” says Eberts, who spent six months, onboard commercial fishing vessels throughout Lake Huron, collecting Lake Whitefish for her research.

“I experienced Lake Whitefish from the point of harvest, in the lab and even on the dinner plate. For those who haven’t had Lake Whitefish to eat, I assure you it’s a tasty fish,” she says.

Each year, on average, 3.2 million kilograms of Lake Whitefish are harvested from Lake Huron adding up to a fishery worth millions of dollars.

In Saskatchewan Lake Whitefish supports a $1 million commercial fishery.

Eberts’ research has focussed on Lake Huron where she’s part of a diverse research team from the U of R and McMaster University. In addition, Bruce Power, the Lake Huron operated nuclear power company, is an industrial partner for this research.

With the Bruce Power Plant operating on the shores of Lake Huron, this research team is studying the effects of thermal pollution on Lake Whitefish.

“We are looking at what impact industrial discharge has on Lake Whitefish populations in the area,” says Eberts. “I was particularly interested in determining whether Lake Whitefish near the Bruce Power Plant are a distinct population compared to others in the lake”

Lake whitefish numbers have declined in the Great Lakes. Researchers have also noticed the fish that are being caught are smaller compared to historical catches.

”Whitefish are getting leaner. Part of the reason for this, according to previous research, is the prey base for Lake Whitefish has changed dramatically. Certainly the invasion of zebra mussels has taken a toll on these systems. In some cases, Lake Whitefish have opted to feed on these prevalent zebra mussels, which do not support a high quality diet,” says Eberts.

“In my research, I found that some groups of whitefish from particular areas in Lake Huron represent distinct populations. However, the whitefish near Bruce Power were part of a larger, highly mixed population. It remains to be seen what impacts industrial discharge could have on the productivity of this larger population,” says Eberts.

Eberts expects her work to provide valuable insight for Bruce Power and whitefish managers in this region.

Funding for the project comes from The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and Bruce Power.