Fingerling Chinook salmon at Port Credit Harbour

Fingerling Chinook salmon at Port Credit Harbour. Photos © Andrew Reeves. See more photos.

There was a general sense of anticipation when the Ministry of Natural Resources truck backed in next to the Port Credit Harbour marina in Mississauga, Ontario. Everyone there at the water’s edge knew how important the truck’s cargo was to the overall health of the silty Credit River flowing brown into the lake.

Roughly 100 people gathered on a sunny Saturday in early April, through the efforts of the Port Credit Salmon and Trout Association and the Ministry of Natural Resources, to help introduce 10,000 Chinook salmon fingerlings into a nine-by-four foot pen tucked between boat slips.

Brian Lambie, president of the Port Credit Salmon and Trout Association, showed me around the floating docks at Port Credit Harbour before crowds of children and adults would begin carrying buckets of fish in a fire-brigade fashion along the docks to the pen.

Officials pose for a photo while introducing Chinook Salmon into the Credit River, April 19, 2014.
Finance Minister Charles Sousa with MNR staff and representatives from the Port Credit Salmon and Trout Association.

City Councillor Jim Tovey and Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa, the MPP for Mississauga South, emptied the first ceremonial bucket of fish into the pen as crowded onlookers jostled for photos and a better view while making sure no one fell off the narrow docks and had to be fished out.

For the next month, the fingerlings will remain here as they go through a kind of puberty called “imprinting,” Lambie said, and begin to associate the Credit River as their home.

Until the fish are released, they’ll be wards of the City of Mississauga with municipal staff checking in and feeding them. After their time in Port Credit Harbour is up and an indelible imprint of the Credit River etched in their brains, the fish will head out into the lake where it’s hoped they’ll grow to upwards of 30 pounds before returning to this river in four years to spawn.

It’s a victory-through-sheer-volume approach. The Ministry of Natural Resources and organizations like Lambie’s help introduce over 700,000 Chinook salmon every year to Lake Ontario with more than 100,000 released into the Credit River alone in 2013. This is on top of other fish species MNR helps re-stock in the Great Lakes like once-native Atlantic salmon.

Chinook salmon enter their new pen in Snug Harbour, at the mouth of the Credit River.
Finance Minister Charles Sousa watches Chinook salmon enter their new pen in Port Credit Harbour.

Port Credit Harbour is just one of eight net pens located on the shores of Lake Ontario: Port Dalhousie, Bluffers Park in Scarborough, Whitby, Oshawa, Darlington, Brighton and Wellington house the others.

But before anyone thinks Lake Ontario is swarming with salmon, the survival rate of these tiny fingerlings, no more than two inches long when interred in the pen, hovers around one per cent. Three per cent in a good year. It’s sobering to think if only 100 of these 10,000 fish survive to maturity conservationists and government biologists will be pleased. If 300 make it they’ll pop champagne.

Stocking Lake Ontario via regional pens doesn’t always work out as planned, however. In 2013, a fierce cold snap hit southern Ontario weeks after the ministry released their hatchlings for the year. The entire stock was lost right across the province.

But MNR carries on. Between the weather, native predators like birds and larger fish, human impairments to settlement like dams and pollution, the odds are stacked against the overwhelming majority of fingerlings released this month, and the ministry knows it, Lambie said.

They factor such disasters into planning how many fish to keep on hand at nine fish culture stations across Ontario. When the 2013 cold snap decimated the 10,000 fingerlings in the harbour pen, Lambie simply called MNR’s fish hatchery at Normandale and requested another 10,000. They arrived shortly.

But there are little things the Port Credit group and others due to ensure they give their baby Chinooks a fighting chance. Once the incubation period ends, the pens will be emptied at dusk when predators are less active to cut down on the number of fingerlings immediately lost to sea birds and other large fish in the river.

I am struck by how many people think of Lake Ontario as wallpaper to look at. It’s actually a dynamic ecosystem.

Lambie also held half a dozen or so fish in an aquarium at the harbour (see top photo) so the public has an opportunity to see the Chinook first hand and learn more about why fish restocking efforts like this are so critical to the overall health of the Great Lakes.

It’s all part of a larger effort to get people thinking differently about the lake and getting involved in its protection, according to Lambie.

“I am struck by how many people think of Lake Ontario as wallpaper to look at,” Lambie told me. “It’s actually a dynamic ecosystem. I believe people would take much better care of it and appreciate it if they knew more about the amazing life that’s actually living and swimming around out there.”

Andrew Reeves is an environmental writer completing a book about Asian carp in North America. He is a contributing editor at Alternatives Journal and This Magazine’s environmental columnist. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights.

Follow him on Twitter.

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