Grey clouds rolled overhead as we drove east on Highway 401 toward the mouth of the Ganaraska River in Port Hope late last month. For the past few weeks anglers had been anxiously awaiting a downpour, which they’d hoped would counter the low water levels caused by unseasonably warm and dry September weather.
There was just one day left before a handful of rivers were set to close for the season, and veteran angler Matthew Saieva could hardly contain his excitement when the rain started to fall: “This could be it — this could be the big one.”
Every fall the rivers and tributaries that feed into Lake Ontario teem with life, as thousands of salmon make their way upstream to spawn. For the past 50 years, the annual ritual has attracted anglers, as well as onlookers who marvel at the salmon’s power as they charge against the current and leap up manmade dams to mate.
Long before Europeans colonized North America, Lake Ontario was home to an Atlantic salmon population large enough to support a booming commercial fishery. But the fish you see today are not descended from the lake’s original inhabitants.
By the mid-19th century, overfishing and the destruction of natural habitats due to increased agriculture and industry had nearly decimated the fishery. The problem got so bad that in 1866, pisciculturist Samuel Wilmot founded the province’s first hatchery in an effort to replenish the Atlantic salmon stock. Despite his efforts Lake Ontario’s Atlantic salmon were extinct by the beginning of the 20th century.
Although attempts to stock various breeds continued through the early 1900s, the lake remained without a steady salmon population until the mid-’60s, when Chinook from the Pacific coast were introduced to Ontario waters. The Chinook helped combat the invasive alewife (a type of herring), whose population had exploded following the demise of several native fish species.
The mighty Chinook was sought out partly due to its reputation as a feisty game fish. Today the species is an integral part of Ontario’s sport fishing industry, which annually contributes $2.4 billion to the provincial economy. That’s why every year the province introduces thousands of Chinook to Lake Ontario.
Most of the salmon swimming upstream this time of year are Chinook, but in recent years they’ve been joined by a growing number of Atlantic salmon, thanks to the Lake Ontario Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program. Since its launch in 2006, the program has stocked close to 6 million Atlantic salmon and been a part of 198 habitat restoration projects. It’ll be another 10 to 15 years before program’s results can be fully be assessed, but in the meantime, one thing’s for sure: there is no shortage of fish in Lake Ontario.
Cody Punter is a photojournalist and writer whose work has appeared in the Toronto Star, Toronto Life, and Vice. He is also the founder of the True North Photo Journal.
Urban Nelson charges up a glow-in-the-dark lure while fishing for salmon at the mouth of the Humber River. The Humber is one of the dozens of rivers and tributaries — the GTA alone contains six — where Lake Ontario salmon go to spawn every fall. Salmon spend most of their life in deep water in the middle of the lake. As summer comes to an end, they make their way to river mouths where they begin their journey to mate.
Atlantic salmon are native to the Lake Ontario. By the late 1800s, overfishing and the destruction of fish habitats as a result of expanding colonial settlements led the province’s entire population to be wiped out. Although there were several attempts to introduce new fish to the lake over the years, it wasn't until the introduction of several kinds of Pacific salmon in the 1960s that a stable population was once again established in Ontario.
Peter Molson holds up a 40-pound prize-winning Chinook salmon he caught during a fishing competition at the Humber River in 1978. Chinook salmon were introduced to Lake Ontario in the mid-1960s. They were an immediate boon to the province's sport-fishing industry, which today brings $2.4 billion to Ontario’s economy every year.
Jake Bowles, left, tries to reel in a Chinook salmon while Matthew Saieva carries a coho to shore on September 30, the final day of fishing on the Ganaraska River in Port Hope. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has regulations in place to protect against overfishing, including a limit on how many fish can be kept, as well as on where and when anglers can fish. In recent years, some Port Hope residents have criticized the annual pilgrimage to the Ganaraska, with some having dubbed the stretch of river in town "slaughter alley."
A Chinook salmon tries to jump up a dam on the Credit River on October 10. Chinook spend most of their lives in the deep waters of Lake Ontario. They only swim up into the rivers once in their lifetime, in order to spawn, after which they die.
A man carries home a Chinook salmon he planned to eat after catching it on the second-last day of the fishing season on the Ganaraska River. Chinook salmon from Lake Ontario are edible, although older fish swimming upstream to spawn, which are close to death, are not as desirable as salmon caught in the lake or at the river mouth. The unusual camouflage pattern on this particular fish is not natural; it was created when the salmon was laid down on the grass in the rain after being caught.
Participants in Highland Creek's annual Salmon Festival look for fish in Scarborough's Morningside Park on October 1. The festival, which is now in its eighth year, was started as a way to educate Torontonians about the diverse ecosystems that are fundamental to the survival of the city's salmon. While salmon usually start running in September, the unusually hot weather and the lack of rain this fall meant the water was too warm and too low for the salmon to make it upstream in time for this year's festival.
An Atlantic salmon swims in a tank at the Normandale Fish Culture Station, in Norfolk County. In 2006, a coalition of more than 40 partners, including the Ontario government, founded the Lake Ontario Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program, with a view to reviving the once mighty fishery. The 93-year-old Normandale facility, which underwent a $12 million upgrade before re-opening in 2013, is the main hatchery for Lake Ontario's Atlantic and Chinook salmon. While there is some skepticism as to whether the Atlantic salmon will ever flourish again, it is expected to take approximately 15 years before the program can be properly evaluated.
A man holds up plastic fish he caught at a casting practice station set up by Toronto Urban Fishing Ambassadors during Highland Creek's annual Salmon Festival in Scarborough on October 1. Toronto Urban Fishing Ambassadors is a group of avid anglers that seeks to promote fishing and conservation of their habitat within the city.
Matthew Saieva holds up a coho salmon he caught in the Ganaraska River on September 30. Like Chinook, coho are a West Coast species that was artificially introduced to Lake Ontario in the 1960s. Their aggressive behaviour and brilliant colours make them a favourite of sport fishers. Today Lake Ontario is home to four kinds of salmon: Chinook, coho, Atlantic, and pink.
Chinook salmon are electrofished by a Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry biologist before being netted during an egg collection run on the Credit River. Sending electricity into the water stuns the fish but keeps them alive so they can be harvested for their eggs and sperm.
Hand-painted imitation fish eggs dry on a piece of Styrofoam in Matthew Saieva's basement. The 23-year-old fisher started making his own lures in a friend's shed several years ago and eventually went on to found his own company, Kype Fish. The eggs are popular bait among anglers, who use it as an alternative to roe.
Jake Ruegg, operations coordinator for the Normandale Fish Culture Station, holds up a female Chinook salmon while she is milked for eggs during an egg-collection run on the Credit River. Each female Chinook can produce up to 5,000 eggs.
Fishers line up along the Ganaraska River before sunrise on the last day of the salmon fishing season in Port Hope. In order to prevent people from abusing regulations, fishing in Port Hope is not permitted between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. On September 30, some anglers showed up as early as 4 a.m. just to get a spot on the river.
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