an adult Atlantic salmon in Norway

an adult Atlantic salmon in Ålesund, Norway | photo credit Hans-Petter Fjeld

I sailed the waters of Lake Ontario recently, on the ferry connecting Wolf Island with the mainland city of Kingston, and while on the beastly boat conveying me from shore to shore I looked down, over the railing, hoping vainly to see fish. I knew better but I looked anyway, trying to picture this body of water as it was 200 years ago when it was an aquatic paradise for species of every description. Most notable of all, perhaps, were the Atlantic salmon.

But these weren’t “true” Atlantic salmon who occupied Lake Ontario. Instead of spending their lives out to sea and returning to the tributaries of their birth to spawn, these salmon lived out their lives in freshwater, forsaking the ocean entirely. The tributaries they used for reproduction fed Lake Ontario and it’s in this same lake they prospered. As a consequence they were slightly smaller than their saltwater cousins and darker in colour.

They adapted to freshwater life so thoroughly that they were formidable in number, supporting the blossoming fisheries of European settlers in the late 1700s and of course the native Canadians who depended on them for countless generations beforehand. It’s been said that fishermen on these waters didn’t keep track of their catch by counting the individual salmon they hooked. Instead they counted their salmon by the barrel.

But industry gave birth to still more industry and the Atlantic salmon of Lake Ontario became trapped in between. Besides their losses to anglers of every description, rampant logging necessitated the damming of numerous rivers and stream, cutting the salmon off abruptly from the spawning grounds of their youth. In their generational struggle to overcome the currents of their home, here were barriers even the strongest among them couldn’t overcome.

Their numbers declined markedly in the mid-1800s and suddenly catches weren’t counted by the barrel anymore. Hatcheries were established first in 1866 to make up these losses but they ultimately failed to save the fishery. In April of 1898, off the shores of Scarborough Beach, the last Atlantic salmon native to Lake Ontario was hooked, all but confirming the population’s extinction. It weighed in at seven pounds.

There have been many attempts to introduce non-native salmon to this crippled ecosystem over the last century and although live individuals have been seen swimming upstream, there’s been no evidence that they’re reproducing on their own. To date, no self-sustaining populations have been achieved.

It might be that Lake Ontario is no longer capable of supporting the Atlantic salmon, given the erosion of its tributaries, the pollution of its waters and the introduction of deadly invasive species like the lamprey. Or maybe it’s that the destroyed native population was specialized for this ecosystem in ways their non-native counterparts are not.

Whatever the case, I didn’t see any fish when I leaned over the side of that ferry on by return trip to Kingston. It’s a beautiful lake and I wholeheartedly recommend visiting the region described in this column, but the Lake Ontario of today is a pale reflection of its historic self, once containing fish we might have saved with the benefit of forethought. It was a sad conclusion to reach.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of Shades of Green. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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