Researchers identify 45 species at risk along St. John River

·3 min read

An international organization is recommending more action to protect 45 species at risk along the St. John River watershed.

The World Wildlife Fund has been working on a new priority threat management report with the University of British Columbia, along with 28 species and habitat experts in the area.

The report lays out exactly what actions need to be taken to save the species, the cost of doing it, and the feasibility of making that happen.

"It allows us to think about the species in the region and what strategies and actions need to be undertaken to recover them," said Simon Mitchell, who lives in New Brunswick and works for the nonprofit organization.

The study also found government could fund this recovery for the equivalent of $33 per person each year in New Brunswick.

What is causing species to be at risk?

He said some of the biggest threats to the watershed include habitat loss, pollution and the province's recent flooding in 2018 and 2019.

"To have a functioning and healthy ecosystem, we need to have all of the species that are here present and living their life states because that contributes to the overall health and resilience of the watershed," he said.

Species most at risk include the shortnose sturgeon, found in the lower St. John River in the Kennebecasis region, and wood turtles, which live around Nerepis and Grand Lake.

The latter is a freshwater turtle that can grow upwards of 25 centimetres long, is dispersed throughout northeastern North America, including New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario, according to the national species at risk registry.

But the population has been declining for decades. Researchers estimate there are between 6,000 and 12,000 adults left in Canada.

"[They have] been impacted by these heavy floods that we've had in the last number of years," he said.

Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre
Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre

Their habitats, which are mostly gravel bars and areas adjacent to islands, have been scoured by heavy water flows and ice.

"That can negatively impact their homes and the places they live and feed."

And then there's Furbish's lousewort, a plant that can only be found growing on the shores of the upper St. John River in New Brunswick and in northern Maine.

The plant can typically be found as early as May with a few stemless, fern-like leaves that appear as a bouquet protruding from the ground, according to the provincial Energy and Resource Development website.

The plants are legally protected under New Brunswick's Species At Risk Act and cannot be harmed.

Other species include the Atlantic salmon, monarch butterfly and bald eagle.

Threats will mount 'the longer we wait'

In order to keep these species alive, Mitchell said more work needs to take place, like riparian restoration projects "that ensure the river bank is stable and stays in place." He said more trees need to be planted to make sure erosion isn't taking place.

He said education is also needed to help species recover, as well as more information about the negative impacts pollution can have on the environment.

"The sooner the better," he said. "I think we've dragged our feet a bit on the species at risk … the longer we wait, the more the threats mount."

Shane Fowler/CBC
Shane Fowler/CBC

Mitchell said people also rely on the river for a number of things, including clean water, recreational opportunities and industrial practices.

"Without having that healthy watershed, it certainly can compromise the social, cultural and spiritual well-being of people in the region."