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Cape Breton Highlands National Park of Canada

Fish: Denizens of the Deeps

Fish can be found in many of the lakes and streams of Cape Breton Highlands National Park as well as along the coast outside the park.

Freshwater Fish - Keepin' Cool in the Streams

The number of native freshwater fish found within Cape Breton Highlands National Park is limited to 10 species, less than a third of the species found on mainland Nova Scotia. The small variety of freshwater species is due mainly to natural barriers such as the ocean and the mountains, as well as low water levels in summer. Also, the oxygen-rich but nutrient-poor waters of the park are not good for many species of fish, although they are ideal for trout and salmon.

A young brook trout relaxes in a small stream.
Young brook trout can be seen in even some of the smallest streams in the park. They're well-camouflaged as protection from predators. Can you spot the one in this photo?
© Cape Breton Highlands National Park / P. Doyle A school of gaspereau congregates in a rocky stream.
Gaspereau congregate at the mouths of streams in spring. No commercial gaspereau fishery occurs in northern Cape Breton although there are commercial fisheries elsewhere on the island.
© Cape Breton Highlands National Park / J. Pleau

The eastern brook trout lives in most of the park's lakes and streams, and the Atlantic salmon spawns in most of the larger rivers, with an unusual early spring run in Chéticamp River. Brackish ponds near the coast support smelt, gaspereau, sticklebacks and banded killifish.

From the 1950s until the mid 1970s, some of the lakes and rivers in the park were commonly stocked with trout and salmon. Two lakes were even poisoned to get rid of fish species such as American eel, smelt, gaspereau and white perch which were not deemed "desirable" for sport fishing. Nowadays the park is working to keep the lakes, rivers and fish populations as natural as possible and stocking no longer occurs.

Rainbow trout and brown trout are two introduced fish species. The rainbow trout was regularly stocked in the park in the mid 1970s but did not appear to breed. It is likely that the rainbow trout and brown trout still sometimes caught in the park probably escaped from local fish farms.

Check out the Checklist of Freshwater Fish!

Saltwater Fish - A Diminishing Mainstay of the Economy
A close up of an Atlantic cod.
Atlantic cod were once fished commercially in the waters near Cape Breton.
© Technographics, Bedford Institute of Oceanography / H. Wiele

A variety of saltwater fish occur off and near the coast including Atlantic cod, haddock, halibut, herring and mackeral. Several species including Atlantic cod, Atlantic salmon and haddock can no longer be fished commerically because of their small population size. Swordfish were fished locally up until 10 years ago.

A blue shark swims in the sea near Nova Scotia.
The blue shark is one of the most commonly encountered sharks off Nova Scotian shores.
© Bedford Institute of Oceanography / Dr. S. E. Campana

Cartilaginous fish such as sharks, skates and stingrays also live in the saltwater around the park. The sharks that are most commonly sighted near Nova Scotia are the spiny dogfish and the blue shark. The large but harmless plankton-eating basking shark, an IUCN Redlist vulnerable species, is often seen near Nova Scotia as well. A directed fishery of porbeagle sharks in Nova Scotia results in some catches landed by large boats to the north of Cape Breton in the Cabot Strait; some blue sharks may also be landed as part of a sport fishery.

Checklist of Freshwater Fish in Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Family - (Common Name)


Scientific Name

Status in waters outside Park

Salmonidae - (Salmon and Allies)

Atlantic salmon Salmo salar Uncommon
Brook trout Salvelinus fontinalis Abundant
Brown trout Salmo trutta Rare - introduced to NS
Rainbow trout Salmo gairdneri Rare - was stocked

Osmeridae - (Smelts)

Rainbow smelt Osmerus mordax Rare

Anguillidae - (Freshwater Eels)

American eel Anguilla rostrata Common

Clupeidae - (Herrings)

Gaspereau (alewife) Alosa pseudoharengus Locally Common

Cyprinodontidae - (Killifishes)

Banded killifish Fundulus diaphanus Uncommon

Gasterosteidae - (Sticklebacks)

Threespine stickleback Gasterosteus aculeatus Rare
Fourspine stickleback Apeltes quadracus Rare
Ninespine stickleback Pungitius pungitius Rare

Percithyidae - (Temperate Basses)

White perch Morone americana Rare