Ushering in the Return of the King: The History and Future of Atlantic Salmon in Lake Ontario
By: Andrew Orlando, Habitat Technician, Ontario Streams
Known to some as the “King of Fish”, the Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar) has one of the most storied histories across the Atlantic Ocean. Recently however, this history has not been entirely positive. Utilized as a food source for thousands of years, human induced pressures on the fish have only increased over the years to the extent that Atlantic Salmon are now one of the most heavily regulated fish in the world. Believed to have colonized Lake Ontario during the last post-glacial period when the lake was easily accessible by sea, historic populations adjusted to freshwater life. By 1896 however, they were declared to be extirpated (locally extinct) and thus began early recovery efforts.
How have we pushed Atlantic Salmon to the brink?
It is easy to suggest both commercial and recreational overfishing as the main culprit driving the decline of Atlantic Salmon, however that is only one part of the picture. Another primary pressure imposed onto the species is habitat degradation in the form of declining water quality and damming of rivers. Lake Ontario has also been victim to the dumping of effluents which contribute to declining water quality. And poor logging practices along tributaries has increased water temperatures by reducing shade, allowing more runoff to reach rivers and increasing turbidity through accelerated bank erosion. Damming of rivers for the creation of reservoirs and mills, energy production or for flood control has simply blocked the path for migrating salmon, preventing them from reach spawning grounds. Due to the species’ need to travel up tributaries to create nests known as redds, more than just the lake’s habitat must be made suitable if a naturally reproducing sustainable population is to be established.
What can be done to address these issues?
Thankfully, there are now a number of organizations determined to not let this awe-inspiring fish’s story end on a sour note, one of which is Ontario Streams. Based out of Aurora, Ontario, Ontario Streams has been working in partnership with several organizations under the Lake Ontario Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program aiming to return the species to Lake Ontario. Besides efforts to improve spawning habitat through riparian tree and shrub planting or in-stream habitat or erosion control structure building; Ontario Streams has been developing an egg incubation method since 2008 to aid in supplementary Atlantic Salmon stocking. Attempting to mimic the effect of redds, incubation tubes filled with fertilized eggs are planted in February and monitored weekly until early May when the salmon are released. By this point the salmon have hatched and reached the fry stage in which they are large enough to feed and survive. In order to inspire future generations to continue this work and educate them about Atlantic Salmon, Ontario Streams has also coordinated a Classroom Hatchery Program allowing classrooms to observe development themselves and aid in the stocking effort.
On a personal note, as both a conservationist and an angler I believe the Atlantic Salmon has a certain mysticism to it that deserves our respect and efforts. Myself among others long for the day these fish will once again thrive in Lake Ontario and its tributaries. And on that day, with rod in hand, I will be proud to utter the words: the King has come home.
2021 Atlantic Salmon Restoration Highlights
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