Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association wants to keep track of unusual species

    SYDNEY: Two ocean sunfish, known under the genus and species name mola mola, have washed up on the shores of the Bras d’Or Lake in the past month. The first was discovered on the East Bay sandbar in mid-November with the second one being found in Irish Vale on December 1.

    Dr. Annamarie Hatcher, an ecologist and board member of the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association (BLBRA) said the fish were most likely blown off course during severe weather like the recent nor’easters.

    “Once they get in there, they have a very limited ability to navigate, so they can’t really get out and they eventually starve to death,” Hatcher said, who publishes a regular column for The Reporter. “They come up on the Gulf stream, following their major food source, which is jellyfish. They’re not unheard of up here, but their normal environment is further south.”

    The unusually odd looking, large, disc-like fish with funny little beady eyes and a large fin that sticks out of the water, resembling a shark, can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, and is normally found in warmer, but not tropical, waters.

    Since 2005, the BLBRA has had four reported landings of sunfish and it’s not uncommon to see them off the Atlantic Ocean where they hang around the surface and feed on jellyfish.

    Hatcher has received numerous pictures of washed-up sunfish stranded in areas of the Bras d’Or, along with receiving an e-mail from a man who said he remembers seeing one 20-years-ago in the Bras d’Or but didn’t report it to anybody.

    “We at the BLBRA want to keep track of these sightings so if people let us know through our Facebook page or our Web site, than we can keep track,” she said. “There’s a bit of a mix between how many people are looking for them, whether they recognize they’re unusual here and how many there actually are.”

    This ocean sunfish was found in East Bay in mid-November.

    Hatcher said having multiple sunfish wash-up on the Bras d’Or in recent weeks; it’s a true indicator of changing climate, in that there’s more significant weather events that push that warmer Gulf stream water into the Bras d’Or.

    “That’s not a natural occurring thing, as the climate warms, and the storm intensity increases we’re getting more of these events where warmer waters are being pushed into the Bras d’Or,” she explained. “Two or three years ago, a large school of needle fish, which is a tropical species, got washed into the Bras d’Or; this particular species died because it couldn’t handle the cold.”

    Hatcher points to another species that has turned up into the Bras d’Or unexpectedly. Thousands of years ago, the ocean was warmer and a little higher than it is now and that’s when oysters reached the shores here.

    “The Bras d’Or is such a complex ecosystem that there are pockets of warm water and pockets of cold water, so these animals that came here in the past; there are still significant habitats for them to stay here,” she said. “We could very well get the establishment of new species in the Bras d’Or as climate warms.”

    The BLBRA would like to know when unusual things are cited like the sunfish, so they are asking people to let them know through their Facebook page or Web site at:

    “We want to engage people with their ecosystem so that people do know these things, it’s very important to predict how the ecosystem is going to change,” Hatcher said. “And how we can adapt to that change, it’s kind of like introducing the local people to their ecosystem and telling them to take note.”

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    Drake Lowthers has been a community journalist for The Reporter since July, 2018. His coverage of the suspicious death of Cassidy Bernard garnered him a 2018 Atlantic Journalism Award and a 2019 Better Newspaper Competition Award; while his extensive coverage of the Lionel Desmond Fatality Inquiry received a second place finish nationally in the 2020 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards for Best Feature Series. A Nova Scotia native, who has called Antigonish home for the past decade, Lowthers has a strong passion in telling people’s stories in a creative, yet thought-provoking way. He graduated from the journalism program at Holland College in 2016, where he played varsity football with the Hurricanes. His simple pleasures in life include his two children, photography, live music and the local sports scene.