Conservation efforts have shown impressive results, but there's still more to do.
Some of the best fishing is in our back yard.
Two young anglers, each no more than 12-years-old, wade in the creek with their fishing rods as the sun breaks through the last of the rain clouds. It’s spawning season for Chinook salmon and the kids, along with hundreds of other community members, have congregated near Highland Creek for the seventh Annual Salmon Festival, where they hope to catch—at least a glimpse of—the fish swimming upstream.
“It still amazes people that there are salmon in these rivers,” says Arlen Leeming, a manager at Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA). “It wasn’t always like this,” he adds, as we walk along a deer path near the riverbed. In fact, 200 years ago, the waterways that feed into Lake Ontario were teeming with native fish populations. The Atlantic salmon was so abundant that inmates at the Don Jail eventually refused to eat any more of the fish, caught fresh and frequently on the prison premises.
In the decades that followed, industrialization, urbanization, and neglect lead to polluted waterways and the demise of many fish populations, including Atlantic salmon. In 1969, the Don River was ceremoniously pronounced dead; other nearby rivers were scarcely healthier. By 1985, the Toronto region was dubbed an “Area of Concern”—an environmental hazard zone—on the Great Lakes.
Since then, the TRCA has helped carry out myriad projects to boost the health of Toronto’s rivers and creeks and restore fish habitats. In 1987, the Toronto and Region Remedial Action Plan (RAP) was formed as a means to set goals and monitor progress around restoring the health of Toronto’s waters, particularly those that feed into Lake Ontario. The most recent progress report [PDF], released this October, highlights immense improvements in the quality of waterways and the species that live there. There have been huge reductions in E.coli counts near the waterfront, resulting in a steady decline of beach closures; the rivers along the waterfront, once thick with a greasy film, now run clear; new and restored habitats for migration, spawning, nursery, feeding and shelter have bolstered species diversity and health in the rivers and the harbour; and fish-eating wildlife are no longer at risk from contaminants.
“We’re seeing a lot of these indicator species coming back,” says Cameron Richardson, project manager for the Don and Highland Watersheds with TRCA. “Chinook salmon in Highland Creek wouldn’t have been here 20 years ago; the habitat was too degraded.” Now, it’s not unusual to see salmon carcasses among the fallen leaves on Toronto river banks in mid to late October. It’s tempting to view this as confirmation that the waters are still urban cesspools incapable of sustaining life; in reality, the dead fish are a sign that the species—a terminal spawner—is repopulating on its own. “It’s a really good measure of watershed health,” Richardson says.
After about 50 years of intensive stocking efforts, close to half of all Chinook salmon, a non-native species, in the lake and the rivers that feed into it now spawn naturally. The Chinook stocking program began solely for sport—to ensure the city had a robust fishery for anglers to compete and, ultimately, to bring in revenue through licensing fees for the province. While this helps bring Torontonians out to enjoy the rivers and surrounding areas, the bigger, more important challenge now is reestablishing native species into the waters.
“Keep your eyes peeled for salmon on the shore,” Leeming says as we continue along the Highland Creek on the warm October Sunday. “We caught one in here on Thursday,” Leeming notes, even though it’s early in the spawning season, which lasts six weeks, and many of the Chinook are still downstream, closer to Lake Ontario.
More recent stocking efforts have focused on Atlantic salmon—a native species to Lake Ontario that has been locally extinct since the late 1800’s. “We’re trying to create the habitat that once existed for the native species,” says Rick Portiss, senior manager of the environmental monitoring program with TRCA. “We want to put the natural species back into place and have a natural run of Atlantic salmon,” he adds. “Those are the species that are supposed to be here.”
Each fall, tiny Atlantic salmon hatchlings are poured into pools in the Duffins Creek and the Credit River in hopes that they will make their way down to the lake, eventually come back upstream to spawn, and continue the cycle. “The ultimate goal is to have a natural, sustaining fishery where the managing body doesn’t have to stock the fish,” says Portiss.
Achieving that goal takes more than just stocking the salmon; it means building habitats for them thrive in. “There’s no sense stocking the fish unless you have all this support for the species,” Portiss notes. To establish those supports, Portiss and the TRCA ensure that fish habitats are considered in every project that happens in and near water bodies in Toronto. When the City was developing the Waterfront Toronto revitalization project, for example, Portiss and his team recommended they add fish nodes—pockets of vegetation and stone formations along dock walls that attract species and encourage people to fish. Similar nodes have also been built in Duffins Creek and Toronto Island. “The fish are there, they’re just looking for the habitat to move into,” says Portiss.
Today, there are over a hundred species of fish in Lake Ontario, 74 of which have been identified along the Toronto waterfront. Twenty-one per cent of those fish are piscivores—species that eat other fish—a strong indicator of a healthy aquatic ecosystem.
The Walleye fish is one native population that has started thriving again. They’re now spawning naturally, a sign that aquatic habitat restoration is working. Incidentally, Portiss says that Walleye are the best tasting fish in Toronto waters.
While Toronto boasts thriving fisheries, Portiss says we have a long way to go to fully shake the misperception—generations in the making—that the city’s waters are dead. “It’s an uphill battle to let people know that this is a great fishery and the water isn’t as polluted as everyone thinks it is,” he says. “You ask someone where they’re going fishing this weekend and they’ll tell you ‘I’m packing the car and going three hours north.’ In fact, some of the best fishing, for pike and bass especially, is around Toronto Island. It’s in our back yard and a lot of people don’t realize that.”
That attitude is slowly changing, though. When Portiss started monitoring Toronto’s fisheries 23 years ago, right around the time of the first RAP report, urban fishing was unthinkable, and genuinely unwise. “Within the last four or five years, we’ve noticed kids riding their bikes with fishing rods in their backpacks and a tackle box hanging off their handle bars. It’s finally catching on in the Toronto area,” he adds. “I like to attribute some of that to the work we’re doing.”
But a big part of the emerging trend, says Portiss, is word of mouth. Events like Salmon Festival and Paddle the Don help amplify the message by encouraging community members to get out and see the vitality of the rivers for themselves. “There’s still lots of work to do—don’t get me wrong,” says Portiss. For one thing, Toronto has yet to shed its Area of Concern designation—something it aims to achieve by 2020. “But there’s been a lot of advancement,” he adds. “Things are really changing drastically and we’re seeing a healthy, clean environment.”