Restoring the Salmon to Lake Ontario
This hub is about a story of hope. It is a story of how we humans, the most intelligent race on this planet, have the capability to extirpate the other natural species. It is also a story of how we humans have the power to bring back the extirpated species, if we so strongly desire. It is a story of my trip to the Duffins creek and the research, before and after that eventful trip on 30 September, 2013. It is a story of a species that was officially declared extirpated in 1896 AD in this part of the world, and is now on its way to being brought back to a self-sustaining life cycle, hopefully in the next 10 - 15 years.
It is a story of how no challenge is too big for us humans if we set about doing the right things, through dedicated research, focused initiatives and community involvement. Read on to get a view of my perspective on this epic restoration project.
What is anadromous (able to live in both fresh and salt or sea water); has the capability to jump about 12 feet in the air and can swim up to 30 kms/ hour & up to about 2500 kms?
It is a fish called the Atlantic Salmon, which has been described by some as the 'King of the Fishes'. This description has been given because of the long journey that this fish makes over its lifetime - it is born in fresh water streams; spending its early years there too, and then finds its way to the feeding grounds of the Atlantic Ocean. It returns to its place of birth for spawning. These fish have a great sense of smell and it is said that this fish can detect one drop of scent in 10 Olympic size swimming pools. Its return to its birthplace for spawning is majorly attributed to this strong sense of smell, besides other factors like magnetic sensing, stars, etc.
This fish is also known by the name of Salmo Salar; Salmo in Latin means Salmon and Salar meaning leaper; a name that is based on its tremendous leaping capability. It forms part of the Salmonidae family, which is distinguished from the other fish by the presence of the adipose fin along with a prominent lateral line. The Salmonidae family comprises of Salmons, Trouts, Chars, Whitefish and Graylings.
Fall is the Spawning Season.
Atlantic Salmon in Lake Ontario
As can be seen in the photograph above, the Atlantic Salmon is a large silvery fish with small black spots above the lateral line, over the entire body of the fish. On some fish the large number of black spots are so close that it gives a darkish appearance to the fish. The fish can also be spotted in different colours ranging from silver to bronze to mildly greenish or bluish. The fish has an average size of 18 inches, and weighs about 2-4 pounds; though a relatively recent Ontario record of this fish, that was caught in lake Ontario in 1989, has been a length of 35 inches and weighing 24.3 pounds.
Most Atlantic Salmons proceed to the sea after spending two or more years in the fresh water rivers where they hatched. In the Atlantic sea, they feed in the cold waters of the North Atlantic in the regions around Greenland. They return to the same fresh water rivers where they once hatched, for spawning, However certain species like the lake Ontario salmons, are fully or partially landlocked and spend their entire life in the fresh waters of lake Ontario. They have adapted to the freshwater life after having moved in to the lake during the post glacial periods. Historically, 40 tributaries in Lake Ontario supported runs of Atlantic salmon.
This fish was worshipped by the aboriginal people living around the lake in the earlier era before the European settlers first moved in to North America. This fish also formed an important part of the aboriginal peoples diet. Early European settlers in North America were familiar with the Salmon and they too consumed the salmon as an important part of their diet. It has been suggested that easy availability of this then abundant fish encouraged settlement around the lakes. These settlements in turn led to increased commercial and recreational exploitation of the species, in the lakes.
At the same time, there were increasing human settlements in the area around the lakes leading to deforestation to facilitate utilisation of land for agriculture. Also over the years other activities to support human settlements were being undertaken by humans, in the form of building water mills/ dams, industries, etc. leading to poor stream quality, river bank erosion, changes in river flows, and silting of the rivers. All this led to a loss of the spawning habitat for the salmons in the 40 odd tributaries feeding in to lake Ontario.
Increased commercial fishing and loss of spawning habitat in the tributaries led to a decline of the Atlantic salmon in lake Ontario. This decline was observed in the latter half of the 19th century, when efforts were made to restore or at least maintain the population of the salmons in lake Ontario. In 1866, Samuel Wilmot established the first government-sponsored fish hatchery in North America in Newcastle, Ontario. This effort seemed to pay off initially, as population increases were observed in many streams, but the increase was not sustainable and the numbers fell off again with observers reporting very few fish around 1881. It is documented that "the species was officially declared extirpated in 1896, and the last reliable report of a harvested Atlantic salmon was in 1898".
Few more efforts at restoration were undertaken, commencing 1940. However, these were all unsuccessful due to environmental degradation and ecological damage to the habitat. It was felt that there was a need to re-build the degraded ecosystem for the salmon to be restored to lake Ontario. Decades of concerted efforts at pollution control have led to improved ecosystems in the tributaries to lake Ontario. This coupled with extensive research by Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources demonstrated that it was possible for the salmon to be restored in lake Ontario. Similar initiatives were also underway in the US, on the Southern side of the lake, with positive results. This gave an impetus to continue with the restoration process North of the lake too.
In 2006, the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, with more than 40 partners, launched a major initiative to restore a self sustaining Atlantic salmon population to lake Ontario. This initiative called as the Lake Ontario Atlantic Salmon Restoration programme has four components: fish production and stocking; water quality and habitat enhancement; outreach and education; and research and monitoring. This is popularly called as the "Bring Back the Salmon" (BBTS) programme.
Salmon Restoration Highlights
Atlantic Salmon Restoration Programme in Duffins Creek, Ontario
The BBTS programme is structured in phases. Phase I commenced in 2006 and was completed in 2010. In this phase, more than 2.5 million fish were stocked in three selected tributaries, viz. the Credit river, Cobourg brook and Duffins creek. These tributaries were selected for restoration because of their "high-quality spawning and nursery habitat, as well as strong community support", wherein thousands of students and volunteers joined the process to bring back the salmons. During this period, nearly 100 habitat projects were completed. The habitat projects included "stream-side plantings, stream bank stabilization, spawning habitat creation, and the construction of cattle crossings and by-pass channels. Over 23,000 trees and shrubs were planted, and 13,229 meters of stream bank enhanced". Future large habitat projects include the construction of fish-ways around dams to facilitate the fish to proceed upstream to their spawning areas.
The Positive Signs of the Restoration Program
Stocking and the restoration of tributary habitats started to show signs of success in 2008 and 2009 when maturing salmons started returning to the tributaries. The success of the program can be gauged from the photographs and video that I have taken on September 30, 2013. These have been uploaded to this hub. These show healthy and wild adult salmons returning to the Duffins creek for spawning. Their presence is proof that the improvements in the ecosystem and the stocking efforts have brought about the desired results of trying to restore the natural and cultural heritage of lake Ontario. The Atlantic salmon are being seen in the lake and its selected tributaries after over 110 years of absence; since 1896 when they were officially declared extirpated.
Atlantic Salmons swimming upstream to Spawning Sites in Duffins Creek, Ontario
Phase II of the BBTS and Beyond
A good beginning had been made in phase I of the BBTS. Phase II of the BBTS programme was launched in 2011 with the Ontario Power Generation as the new major sponsor, which has pledged a sum of $1.25 million over the 5 year period ( 2011 - 2015). The other sponsors that are contributing money to phase II of the program include the LCBO through their natural heritage fund ($50,000 annually) and other sponsors like Banrock Station wines, TD Friends of the Environment and City of Mississauga. Fleming College is helping by raising Atlantic Salmon at its Frost campus in Lindsay.
The phase I of the restoration program focused on three tributaries, viz. the Credit river, the Duffins creek and the Cobourg creek. In phase II, Bronte creek and the Humber river have been selected for the restoration program. Like phase I, these two have chosen for the high quality of the nursery and spawning habitat and strong community support. The third tributary is yet to be identified for phase II.
The presence of the fish in the Duffins creek is proof that the restoration program is working as desired. However, it will take another 10 - 15 years of concerted efforts to achieve the goal of a self-sustaining Atlantic Salmon population in lake Ontario. The strong community support and sponsoring support witnessed in phase I needs to be replicated in the following phases too if the project of self-sustaining population has to be successfully concluded.
Only time will tell if we humans are up to it, for a sustained period of time that it would take to achieve this goal. I am hopeful. Are you? Is the project worth the effort?
Field and Stream Magazine
An Amazing Fact about Atlantic Salmons
A mature female salmon carries about 22% of its body weight as eggs. Understandably so, because a female salmon can lay about 1500 - 1600 eggs/ kilogram of body weight. These eggs are laid in 'redds' (nests) that the female creates by excavating the gravel under the water by splashing its caudal fin (tail). Out of about 7500 eggs laid, only 1.1 mature Atlantic salmon will return to spawn; a very poor record.
This is probably the reason for such a large number of eggs laid, and more importantly, also the reason for 'why' and 'how' we humans need to help them to reach a self sustaining population.
- I visited the Duffins creek on 04 October 2013 and have seen females losing their scales on the tail after doing this; the tail or caudal fin goes silvery. I was witness to a number of couples in the process of laying the eggs and sperm and have taken a video, which I shall put up shortly, in case it is of good quality.
An relevant and interesting excerpt from the Food and Drug Administration website http://www.fda.gov/AdvisoryCommittees/CommitteesMeetingMaterials/VeterinaryMedicineAdvisoryCommittee/ucm222635.htm
"In general, salmon eggs (roe) are laid by mature female fish (sometimes referred to as “hens”) after they have selected a quiet gravelly spot in a stream or pond in late fall (October or November). If the female accepts the courtship of a mature male, she begins a vigorous “dance” in which she uses her caudal fin (tail), swishing it back and forth vigorously to get the water to move the gravel at the stream bed to make a hollow (often referred to as a redd). She then proceeds to lay her orange-red roe (eggs) in the redd; the male aligns himself next to her and releases his milt (sperm) next to the newly released eggs. Fertilization occurs as the eggs and milt intermingle. The female then buries the eggs in the gravel, and rests. The male continues to guard the female, and to drive away competitors aggressively until she has completed making redds and depositing her eggs. This may take as long as a week, and require the building of up to seven redds to deposit her nearly 7,500 eggs. At the end of this time, both male and female are exhausted; they generally swim back downstream to a pool where they rest and recover before beginning a new migration to the ocean a few weeks later. These post-spawn salmon are sometimes referred to as “kelts.” Many do not survive the first mating; some survive to mate twice, but very few mature males or females salmon survive to spawn three or more times".