Vandalism Masquerading as Progress: A History of Lake Ontario’s Fisheries

Martin Nantel, Environment Probe
May 1997

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A little more than three hundred years ago, European explorers stumbled upon a lake known to the local Indians as “Ontario”—the Great Lake. For thousands of years, Aboriginal people had lived on its shore, primarily at the mouths of rivers, and had relied on many of its 150 indigenous fish species for survival. When the early emigrants from the Old World settled around Lake Ontario, they too relied on the abundant and diverse fish populations until they could farm the land. They continued to supplement their diets with great numbers of fish; most families kept barrels of fish for the winter.[2] Later on, a bountiful commercial fishery developed on Lake Ontario.

All of that has changed. Approximately 6.6 million people now live within the Lake Ontario basin. Of those, 69 per cent reside on the more urbanized Canadian shore, with more than half of the entire Canadian Great Lakes basin population being concentrated in the western half of the watershed, including the Toronto-Hamilton crescent. On the American shore of Lake Ontario, the population is concentrated in the Rochester and Syracuse-Oswego areas.[3] Today, almost all of the previously abundant species in Lake Ontario are either greatly reduced or extinct in part or all of their former ranges. New  invading species have replaced the species native to Lake Ontario, not only destabilizing fish stocks but also disrupting the entire food web. Consumption advisories often alert fish consumers to toxic contamination. Virtually non-existent in the American waters of Lake Ontario, the commercial fishery on the Canadian side is relatively small when compared to that of the other Great Lakes.

Fewer than two centuries sufficed to transform the once stable and productive fish community inhabiting Lake Ontario, its bays, marshes, and tributaries into an artificial, unstable, and contaminated one. The first part of this paper reviews the profound ecological transformation that occurred after 1750 and the myriad events that contributed to it. Part Two addresses the institutional setting responsible for the transformation. The paper concludes by arguing for a new set of institutions that will set Lake Ontario and its fisheries on an ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable course.

Part One: An Ecological History

Fishing Out the Lake

Early Settlement by Europeans[4]

Despite the fact that French explorers “discovered” Lake Ontario in the 17th century, both political and logistical obstacles held back full-scale settlement well into the 19th century.

Indeed, seeking the chimeric Northwest Passage to the “Great South Sea” and the riches of Cathay, Samuel de Champlain wanted to sail up the most obvious westward route from his Montreal post: the St. Lawrence River. But because of the French alliance with Hurons—the first Indians whom they had met when they had come into the region through the lower St. Lawrence Valley and who were at war with the Iroquois who controlled the upper St. Lawrence— Champlain and his men had to find another passage. They ascended the Ottawa and Mattawa Rivers to Lake Nipissing, and then descended the French River to Georgian Bay in 1615. The same year, one of Champlain’s intrepid scouts, Etienne Brûlé, crossed Lake Ontario near the Thousand Islands. Once the French got to La Mer Douce, now Lake Huron, the “discovery” of the other lakes was a fait accompli: Etienne Brûlé discovered Lake Superior in 1622; another of Champlain’s protégés, Jean Nicolet, discovered Lake Michigan in 1634; and Nicolet’s nephew, Louis Joliet, discovered Lake Erie in 1669.

While a series of small missions and surrounding villages satisfied the first European settlers—the French missionaries who were busy sowing the seeds of Christianity in the fertile fields of the New World—another breed of early pioneers understood that to serve the rapidly expanding fur trade they needed strategically located forts. Usually these forts were built at already established Indian commercial crossroads, had good harbors, and, with few exceptions, also became major cities: Thunder Bay, Detroit, Chicago, Green Bay, and Duluth. Forts were also built on the present sites of Kingston and Niagara. The Iroquois, however, still blocked expansion in the lower lakes, a control that would last until late in the 18th century. As a result, while the French planted colonies halfway through the continent, Lake Ontario had not yet been truly settled.

A 60-year string of squabbles over the wealth of the Great Lakes ended with the War of 1812 which resulted in a few minor changes being made to the Canadian/American boundary through the Great Lakes. From then on, 53 per cent of Lake Ontario’s area would lie within what would later become the province of Ontario while the remainder would be in the state of New York.[5] More important, British resistance to the westward expansion of American colonists dissipated with the smoke of the last cannonades. Consequently, settlement of the Great Lakes area proceeded at a dizzying pace. In 1825, immigrants from the Atlantic seaboard states and from Ireland, Scotland, Norway, Germany, and many other overcrowded countries of the Old World boarded barges which then crawled up the newly completed Lachine Canal, thus bypassing the rapids between Montreal and Lake Ontario. That same year, the 586-kilometre Erie Canal opened a corridor through upper New York State from the Hudson River at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo. In the words of one historian, “The effect was explosive. The cost per mile of moving a ton of freight to the Atlantic dropped by 90 per cent. People filled the westbound boats. Eastbound, they hauled grain and timber. . . .  The [Erie] canal carried so much business that tolls paid off the entire cost within nine years.”[6]

With the canals now improving transportation on the lakes, development of the region could finally go full-steam ahead. Lured by the word of undeveloped, free, and fertile lands and the prospect of minerals and timber, over 265,000 people settled in five counties of Upper New York State between 1810 and 1850.[7] In Canada, population growth was even more dramatic. In 1817, the civilian population in the 25-year-old town of York had been about 1,200.[8] By the time York became Toronto in 1834, the population had multiplied to nearly 11,000.[9] By the mid-1800s, the population in Upper Canada (now Ontario) had jumped to 950,000 from 20,000 in 1792.[10] The unprecedented pace at which settlement occurred devastated the environment. By the 1830s, the beavers were gone. The settlers had tilled the land, felled the trees, dammed the rivers, mined the earth, and fished the lakes.

Early Fish Community

Prior to European settlement in the late 1700s, about 150 separate fish species had carved ecological niches in Lake Ontario’s deep, cold, and, compared to the other Great Lakes, unproductive waters.[11] Despite the fact that all species were important elements of the food chain, 20 were most widely distributed, and made up both the greatest number of fish and the highest percentage of biomass (or living matter) in what appeared to be a highly productive and stable fish community.[12]

Confined to Lake Ontario and its tributaries by Niagara Falls, the Atlantic salmon, the predator at the top of the food chain, was present in great abundance. Two other predators, the lake trout and the burbot, roamed Lake Ontario’s open waters with the Atlantic salmon. Three species of deepwater planktivorous (or plant-eating) ciscoes constituted the greatest biomass in Lake Ontario and were a major source of food for lake trout and burbot.[13] The most common and widely distributed forage species (otherwise known as prey species, or species that serve as food for predators) in the deeper areas of the lake were the deepwater and slimy sculpins.[14] During spawning season, however, most of the offshore residents homed to specific nearshore features such as reefs along the open shoreline and riffles in streams.[15]

The more diverse nearshore community was dominated by bass, sunfish, minnows, yellow perch, and pike living in the more fertile marshy river and bay habitats and nearshore reefs protected from the open waters.[16] The large-bodied lake whitefish and the smaller lake herring, two planktivorous species, were also mostly found in the bays and shore areas of Lake Ontario.[17] Many cyprinid species, including minnows and carp, and coolwater species, such as walleye, sauger, and yellow perch, made extensive use of the biologically productive and protected nearshore habitats for feeding and reproduction.[18] The emerald shiner and spottail shiner were the most common and widely distributed forage species in the shallower areas of Lake Ontario.[19]

Fish Bonanza

Historical records show the importance of Lake Ontario’s aquatic wealth to First Nations. For instance, the March 1779 entries of Walter Butler’s journal refer to several Mississauga fishing sites, where creeks and rivers were filled with “great Quantities of fish,” all the way from the Bay of Quinte to Toronto.[20] In the early 1800s, when Aboriginal peoples negotiated treaties surrendering their land between Burlington and Toronto, they insisted on retaining rights to the lakeshore as they used it for economic purposes which included hunting, fishing, and harvesting marine life.[21]

Early European settlers must have been astounded by the productivity of the Great Lakes waters. Fish were plentiful and large. In the 17th century, about half of the biomass of the lakes is estimated to have consisted of fish weighing more than 4.5 kilograms.[22] Accounts from before the late 1860s—when catch statistics first became available—all tell similar stories. A Jesuit writer described  the yield of the Salmon River as it neared Lake Ontario circa 1640:

In the spring as soon as the snow melts it is full of gold-colored fish; next come carp, and finally achigen . . . Then comes the brill and at the end of May, when strawberries are ripe, sturgeon are killed with hatchets. All the rest of the year until salmon furnishes food to the village Onaptae [a Huron village on the north shore of Lake Ontario]. . . . We made our bed last night on the shore of a Lake where natives toward the end of winter, break the ice and catch fish,—or rather draw them up by the bucketful.[23]

D’Arcy Boulton, a barrister of law in the town of York, noted in 1805, “Salmon is caught in all the creeks around the Lake. This abundance of fish affords great assistance to the inhabitants, more especially the new settlers, who at first may be supported scantily, provided with beef, pork, etc. It is common practice here for farmers to lay up six or eight barrels of fish for the use of their families.”[24] J. Pickering, living on the shores of Lake Ontario, wrote in 1831, “Two persons in a canoe with a spear and torch will sometimes kill eight to ten barrels of salmon in one night.” Each barrel held about 90 kilograms.[25] Evidence collected under oath in 1893 by a federal fisheries commission confirmed that trout and whitefish were still plentiful almost half a century later. According to John Davis, “a man of high standing,” “In 1875 the trout and whitefish were so numerous in Lake Ontario, all the way down to Cobourg, you could not put a net in the wrong place to catch fish.”[26]

Early Commercial Fishery

The lake and its fishery seemed inexhaustible.[27] The enormous catches hauled after production statistics first became available (earlier catches are believed to have been even higher) could only reinforce this conviction.[28] In the early days of the Lake Ontario commercial fishery, beginning around 1830, commercial fishers ferociously targeted Atlantic salmon, lake sturgeon, lake trout, whitefish, and walleye. Intensive seining operations developed along the lake’s shores. Waste unthinkable by today’s standards occurred. But as remarkably prolific as the lake appeared, it slowly became apparent that something was wrong. By the mid-1800s, Lake Ontario’s ecosystem could no longer maintain its stable appearance.[29]

Evidence collected by the 1893 commission revealed the wasteful practices of those harvesting “immense” quantities of whitefish and other species and their resulting effects. The commission heard that “Thousands of salmon trout and whitefish were at times piled on Burlington beach, left there to spoil. The pigs came down to eat what they wanted. These were mostly caught at the spawning time.”[30] It also heard that “Whitefish and salmon trout were in plenty in 1860. None at all now, destroyed. The yellow pickerel also.”[31]

In other instances, species such as lake herring, lake sturgeon, and small whitefish were “destroyed as nuisances.”[32] On lake sturgeon, one writer reported that “Their carcasses were taken from the nets set for more desirable species, piled on the beaches in great maharajan pyres, and torched. Steamboats firemen also fuelled their boilers with them . . .”[33]

In 1893, one fisher described the previous decades’ whitefish harvests in Lake Ontario:

Have seen 20,000 whitefish on Consecon Beach, Lake Ontario, being one evening’s catch, not one in twenty of which would weigh two pounds. This was in June. Some were salted, others rotted on the shore and were made into manure. They were so plentiful that one hundred could be bought for twenty-five cents. Whitefish were so plentiful in Lake Ontario that . . . one seine . . . put up in one month 180 barrels for our net’s share; the other men—eight of them would get the equivalent to 180 barrels amongst them. This was in June 1869 or 1870. There were other seines fishing also. The same year, in November, during the spawning season, the fish were very numerous, and all larger fish than usual. As many as we could barrel we salted, but a great deal were lost. Whitefish were so numerous that they were hauled away for manure for use upon the farms. Whitefish were so plentiful that in hauling the seine they could not pull it on the shore; they had to dip out what they wanted with small nets and let the rest go. When I left Lake Ontario, in 1877, whitefish were almost exterminated.[34]

Two other fishers recounted similar experiences:

The great majority were whitefish, and were caught at Wellington Beach with seines, as many as 5,000 to 10,000 at one haul. This was in June and July. Even more than this number were caught in the fall during the spawning season. I have known as many as 90,000 being taken in one haul. I was present and saw them counted. . . . When I left Lake Ontario in 1878 there were no whitefish to be had by the fishermen where those great hauls had been made. In fact, the whitefish fishery had ceased to exist. I left to fish here (Midland) [on Georgian Bay] with a number of other fishermen who left for the same cause.[35]

In Lake Ontario whitefish were caught by the thousands in October and November, along the beach at Weller’s Bay and the Consecon at Presque Isle, along the shore. Every forty rods in five miles had a seine; a seine would get 1,000 to 6,000 whitefish at a haul. Seine owners would have as many as fifteen persons cleaning and salting. They were taken so numerously that many spoiled; 40,000 were caught in one seine in July. When I left it was not worth while going out in a boat, fish were so scarce.[36]

In 1899, Deputy Commissioner S.T. Bastedo remarked in the Ontario Fish and Game Commission’s First Annual Report:

The history of commercial fishing in the Great Lakes of this province until within very recent years has been one of wholesale destruction. Not many years ago Lake Ontario teemed with whitefish and there are well authenticated instances of as many as forty, fifty, and ninety thousand having been taken in one night at Burlington Beach. No thought was then had of saving the immature and unmarketable portion of the catch, and no thought was had of the morrow, but they were thrown upon the beach to die, rot and be carted away as manure, and as a result of this improvidence there are now but few whitefish in that lake.[37]

Bottoming Out

Beneath the surface, Lake Ontario’s ecosystem was slowly but surely being thrown out of balance. For one species after the other, its fishery hit rock bottom. The lake’s commercial yields peaked at 3.4 million kilograms in the late 1800s and again at almost 3.0 million kilograms in 1921.[38] In the years prior to 1870, the lake’s commercial fishery may have produced between 3.9 and 4.5 kilograms per hectare.[39] In the 1930s, this had plummeted to 0.89 kilograms per hectare.[40] In the 1960s, the commercial harvest dropped to 0.53 kilograms per hectare.[41]

The Atlantic salmon was the first major fish species to disappear. The salmon spawned in tributary rivers and streams and after two years’ growth moved downstream to the open waters of the lake. During their fall spawning runs, salmon had once been so abundant in Wilmot Creek that “men killed them with clubs and pitchforks” and “women seined them with flannel petticoats.”[42] Atlantic salmon had been a primary source of protein for the Indians, early settlers, and soldiers stationed at military outposts.[43] So valuable was the salmon that in some cases their runs had been reported as the basis for determining the value of land.[44] In Lake Ontario, Atlantic salmon had supported one of the greatest freshwater fisheries in the world.[45]

Despite an apparently boundless population, serious declines in Don River spawning runs were noted by 1829.[46] In the decade between 1830 and 1840, especially after the introduction of pound nets in 1836, several stocks of Atlantic salmon collapsed.[47] By 1845, spawning runs on one of the most famous salmon rivers, the Humber River, had plummeted.[48] In response to declining stocks, fishers intensified the use of pound nets and trapnets at the mouths of spawning streams, along with the use of weirs in streams. In the 1860s, when Atlantic salmon became rare in shore waters, greater use of gillnets in deep water once again led to large catches.[49] Meanwhile, increased fishing efforts and improved technology prevented salmon from ascending the streams in sufficient numbers to secure the perpetuation of their species.[50] By 1880 no runs remained west of Toronto.[51] By 1896, the Atlantic salmon was extinct in Lake Ontario.[52]

The sturgeon was the next species to be depleted. After destroying it as a nuisance because of its low market value and its destruction of fishing nets, fishers discovered a number of uses for the sturgeon and found that it was worth harvesting more intensively. In 1890, 264,000 kilograms were landed; in the early 1920s, less than 5,000 kilograms; and in 1971, less than 230 kilograms.[53] Protective measures have since made the commercial harvest of lake sturgeon illegal.

Combined catches of deepwater ciscoes and lake herring declined from between .5 million and 2.3 million kilograms in the late 1880s to less than 5,000 kilograms in the 1980s. Three species of deepwater ciscos, sometimes called “cheaper grades,” temporarily kept the fishery afloat. By 1972, their numbers, too, had collapsed.[54] As for the nearshore lake herring, it accounted for almost 61,000 kilograms in 1952, and thereafter the trend was downward with occasional small revivals. In 1995, lake herring catches settled at a low 7,000 kilograms.

Human activities had dramatic direct and indirect effects on other nearshore dwellers, although not to the same extent as on the offshore community.[55] Lake whitefish catch statistics show a drop from an 1879 high of over 841,000 kilograms to a 1981 low of 900 kilograms. Luckily, natural recovery helped by sea lamprey control has resulted in a stable fishery which harvested 205,000 kilograms in 1995. By contrast, lake trout and burbot were virtually extirpated in the 1950s as a consequence of the combined effects of sea lamprey predation and nearshore habitat destruction.[56] Catches of burbot in Lake Ontario peaked in 1930 at 44,000 kilograms, and did not exceed 230 kilograms after 1943. Although no commercial harvest of burbot is now allowed, the 1990s seem to be witnessing a slow return of this species.[57] As for lake trout, catches dwindled from half a million kilograms in the late 19th century to approximately 450 kilograms in 1977.

The decline of lake trout and burbot coincided with a rise in the smelt population. But even the less prolific smelt fishery eventually declined as a result of excessive harvests and the destruction of marsh habitat.[58] Catches peaked at around 131,300 kilograms in 1953 and reached a low of 900 kilograms in 1986. There has since been no commercial fishing of smelt. Following the same trend, commercial production of yellow perch went from a high of 289,000 kilograms in 1899 to an all time low of 27,300 kilograms in 1959. Although catches climbed to 636,400 kilograms in 1983, they have since gradually re-declined, reaching 103,000 kilograms in 1995.

The same fate awaited the northern and blue pike.[59] Blue pike harvests in Lake Ontario peaked in 1952 at 295,000 kilograms. Between 1950 and 1954, this fish constituted half the volume and dollar value of the lake catches.[60] Following a low 1960 harvest of 2,700 kilograms, the blue pike fishery completely collapsed; the blue pike was extirpated.[61] Some twenty-five years later, the northern pike fishery also collapsed. From harvest levels fluctuating between 91,000 and 136,000 kilograms in the late 1800s to the mid-1920s, the northern pike population started a decline that led to the closure of the commercial fishery in the mid-1980s. Attempts to reopen the fishery a couple of years later failed, and northern pike remains a depleted species in the waters of Lake Ontario.

As for walleye production, it fluctuated erratically until the mid-1950s when catches oscillated between 57,000 and 77,000 kilograms, their second highest levels in history. Increasing pollution of the Bay of Quinte resulted in a struggling walleye fishery through the 1970s and early 1980s. The local walleye fishery then closed for three years before reopening in 1988. Lakewide walleye harvests, amounting to 15,000 kilograms in 1995, are still low but are nonetheless increasing.


The history of the Lake Ontario fisheries unfolded with a sense of deja vu. As had previously happened with the beaver, forest, and mineral resources of the Great Lakes, fish were being harvested frenetically. They were being salted, packed in barrels, and sent to distant markets, such as those in New York, faster than they could naturally reproduce. The depletion of the fisheries, however, differed from that of other resources in that their impending collapse was not immediately manifest.

Nonetheless, as early as 1874, a report on the Great Lakes fisheries concluded that fisheries in Lake Ontario were evidently more reduced than in any other lake.[62] Mainly because of this decline, regular surveys of the U.S. commercial fish catch began in 1879.[63] But like the use of more efficient technology, catch statistics only masked the profound metamorphosis of Lake Ontario’s fisheries: Increased fishing efforts and a focus on previously less exploited species contributed to maintaining the total level of fish landings, thus perpetuating the myth that Lake Ontario’s fisheries were inexhaustible.

During the next decade, the fisheries of Lake Ontario would continue their decline:

A survey of the United States fishery of Lake Ontario in 1885 showed that the total capital invested in the fishery increased from $54,050 in 1880 to $135,749 in 1885—a 151% increase. This increased investment occurred even though production declined from 8,025,000kg to 5,288,000kg—a 34% decline. Its value declined from $159,700 to $95,869—a 40% decrease. These changes indicate that fishing had become increasingly unprofitable—despite greater investments to maintain the catch as stocks declined. Fishermen from Canada had stopped fishing on the south shore [of Lake Ontario], which was previously more profitable because of the closer proximity to United States markets. As a result, fishing effort was transferred from the United States to Canada where stocks had been less heavily exploited.[64]

An article that appeared in a commercial fisheries journal in 1891 reported that “fishing as a means of livelihood along the shores of the great lake [Lake Ontario] . . . is rapidly decaying . . . once lively towns became dead and musty nets rotted on drying wheels . . .”[65] As fish stocks declined, fishers turned to other professions or left to establish themselves on the shore of another Great Lake.[66] In 1898, another study on the status of the Lake Ontario fisheries concluded that “Part of this decrease in the fisheries can be explained by the stringent laws governing the commercial fisherman, but the main cause is the scarcity of fish.”[67]

The reasons for declining stocks were not well understood. Well into the 20th century, fishers refused to admit that overfishing was destroying their fisheries. As one fisheries historian explains, in the years between 1940 and 1970, the fishing industry, along with fisheries researchers “embraced the view that environmental conditions, not fishing, produced variations in fish abundance. This perspective necessarily denied the need for controls on fishing, which fishermen had been resisting for decades. Instead, they supported measures intended to support their industry’s adjustments to changing environmental conditions.”[68]

Accordingly, the Ontario Department of Lands and Resources’s natural response to declining harvests was to subsidize the expansion of the fisheries. It increased fishing effort by encouraging fishers to enter the industry, developing more efficient gear (for example, smaller meshes and finer twine), encouraging fishers to acquire specialized boats, permitting the catch of immature fish, and seeding new fishing grounds. When fish became less abundant near shore, gillnets and trapnets were introduced to extend fishing into the open lake.[69] There always seemed to be a solution to the decline of a certain fish species.

Degraded Waters and Destroyed Habitats

To blame the demise of Lake Ontario’s fisheries strictly on overfishing is of course very tempting, especially when it is widely known that some species, such as the sturgeon, were overfished almost to extinction. But as fish stocks do not solely respond to any single factor at one time, the overall decline in the commercial catch was more likely due to a combination of factors. Habitat degradation and its associated effects on the food web on which other fish species depended likely played a significant role in the demise of the fisheries.[70] The fact that even with greatly reduced fishing effort the fish stocks failed to recover to their former abundance strongly supports the hypothesis that overfishing alone is not to blame.[71]

Basin modifications

Intensive logging by European settlers in the dense forest around Lake Ontario—an area consisting mostly of white and red pines and known as the “inexhaustible” North Woods—began in the late 1700s in response to the need for agricultural land.[72] Logging also produced lumber, fuel, tanner’s bark, charcoal, and ashes for potash and fertilizer.[73] Even though the Big Cut—the period of intense activity—lasted less than five decades, lumber barons ensured that by the 1890s the “unbroken” forests of the Lake Ontario drainage basin were almost entirely deforested.[74] The scars left by these activities on the region and its fisheries would last for centuries. In some cases, they would last forever.

Early foresters used only 20 to 30 per cent of the wood of the pines. They left behind tops, limbs, and other wood waste to rot on the forest floor, or to provide kindling for frequent forest fires. Not only did forests regenerate extremely slowly in such charred areas, but the resulting soil erosion muddied previously clear streams and rivers, smothering fish and killing them in immense numbers.[75] Although the spring practice of floating logs down nearby streams—driving the rivers—was a very efficient means of transporting the timber to sawmills, the logs scoured the stream beds and banks, killing fish eggs and damaging spawning habitat. Bark and wood chips littered the bed of many rivers and lakes, eliminating plant and animal life, and further damaging fish habitat.

The construction of dams for water-powered mills processing forest and farm products further modified the hydrology of the basin. From the late 1700s to the mid-1800s, 7,406 water-powered sawmills sprang up in the state of New York, in addition to “a somewhat lesser number of grist mills, plaster mills, tanneries, and other water-powered industries on both the U.S. and Canadian sides of Lake Ontario.”[76] The 13 mills that straddled Toronto’s Humber River and its tributaries in 1818 increased to 90 by 1860.[77] In the Ganaraska River watershed, one of the larger in the region, the number of dams went up from 2 in 1800 to 34 in 1860.[78] Insurmountable dams prevented fish migration and reproduction, in addition to facilitating over-fishing.[79]

Other significant adverse and long-term effects also resulted from these basin modifications. One observer noted in the early 1930s that “creeks and rivers in which water hardly flows in dry summer give mute evidence that forests play an important hydrological role.”[80] The loss of the forest floor, which had retained water from melting snow and summer storms, combined with the draining of coastal wetlands to create farmland, upset the hydrological flow. The magnitude of seasonal or short-term fluctuations in stream flow increased greatly.[81] Lower stream levels in the autumn meant reduced spawning areas and created anchors for winter ice which in turn destroyed incubating eggs as the ice moved during the spring breakup.[82] In some cases, springs that once sustained flows throughout the year dried up or became intermittent. The same thing happened with some tributaries that supported Atlantic salmon runs. By the end of the 19th century, stream flows were so greatly reduced that thousands of water-powered mills were abandoned.[83]

Land clearing also resulted in widened and flattened stream beds, scoured banks, and increased silt loads during periods of heavy runoff. Increased erosion ensured that what was left of the salmon’s gravel spawning beds became smothered with silt. Increases in water temperatures caused by the elimination of forest cover from stream banks along with the construction of dams also had catastrophic consequences for the reproduction of Atlantic salmon, a cold water, northern species which already resided at the southern extremity of its range in North America.[84]

Atlantic salmon were by no means the only species adversely affected by thermal changes, low flows, scoured stream beds, reduced shelter, and the other results of land clearing and hydroelectric development around Lake Ontario. Stream-spawning species such as lake trout, lake whitefish, and lake herring were also affected.[85] Many facultative stream-spawning species (those that could spawn in either lake or stream), such as the common white sucker, smallmouth bass, and walleye, stopped or greatly reduced their migration upstream.[86]


Unrestrained discharges of waste resulted in the heavy pollution of nearly all streams throughout the basin by the mid-1800s. Towns and cities discharged their raw sewage into rivers and lakes. Mills and manufactures also dumped their wastes into the streams powering their mills. Sawdust and other pollution from sawmills at the mouths of logging rivers clogged fishers’ nets, buried spawning grounds “under as much as eight feet of mill debris,” and aggravated erosion and siltation.[87]

Anti-pollution laws passed in the late 1800s, along with the closures of many mills, diminished the pollution load to streams. Nevertheless, many streams continued to be sufficiently fouled to render their spawning and nursery areas completely unsuitable for aquatic life. This loss of spawning and nursery habitat in streams may have reduced fish productivity in the lake by causing a substantial reduction in the progeny of stream-spawning fish that contributed to lake-dwelling populations.[88]

By the mid to late 1800s, the huge spawning runs of many species of lake fish described during the 17th and 18th centuries were scarcely mentioned. Attempting to save the Atlantic salmon from extirpation, governments began planting fry and fingerlings in Lake Ontario in 1867.[89] None of the introduction attempts resulted in the reestablishment of salmon runs. And the worse was still to come.

Exotic Species

The pressures of overfishing, degraded water quality, and destroyed habitat worked together to throw off balance the delicate equilibrium of the Great Lakes and of its fisheries. The unintentional introduction of marine invaders in the 19th century tipped the scales for much of the native fishery. Non-native species, also referred to as exotic species, are organisms transported by humans, voluntarily or not, into regions where they did not exist historically. In the Great Lakes, at least 136 exotic species, 17 of which are fish species, have successfully become established since the early 1800s. Fifty-nine per cent of these introduced species came from Eurasia, and approximately 10 per cent have severely altered the ecosystem.[90]

When Champlain reached La Mer Douce in 1615, each of the five Great Lakes had its own thriving aquatic community, with an abundance of members of the salmonid group, including salmon and lake trout. In 1900, 82 per cent of the commercial catch was still comprised of native salmonids. By 1966, natives made up only 0.2 per cent of the catch. The remaining 99.8 per cent was comprised of non-native species.”[91]

Unintentional Introductions: the Sea Lamprey and the Alewife

Perhaps the most significant events that accompanied the disappearance of the Atlantic salmon were the establishment of major populations of alewives and sea lampreys in Lake Ontario. Both were anadromous species (they ascended rivers from the sea for breeding) that were very abundant in the coastal areas of the Atlantic Ocean and were capable of completing their life cycle entirely in fresh water.[92] Both species had unrestricted access to Lake Ontario from the northeast through the St. Lawrence River, which enters the Atlantic Ocean near the northern extremity of their ranges. Historical descriptions of the fisheries, however, do not provide evidence that either species was very abundant at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River or that they entered Lake Ontario in significant numbers by that route.[93]

The first major introduction to the Great Lakes basin, and the most destructive, was that of the sea lamprey, a jawless, parasitic eel-like fish that uses its disc-shaped mouth to attach itself to other fish. It survives by sucking out their blood and body fluids. Most of the time the attack is fatal.

The sea lamprey has existed in oceans for over 250 million years. Most likely, it invaded Lake Ontario from the Erie Canal via the Oswego River.[94] First observed in Lake Ontario in 1835, the lamprey did not make a noticeable impact on the lake’s fisheries until the late 1800s, when rising stream temperatures expanded the number of spawning areas available to it and enabled its population to shoot up. With a strong population and with no natural predator, the extremely voracious sea lamprey fell like a wolf on sheep.

The destructive character of the sea lamprey, which can kill 40 pounds of lake trout in its life cycle, is illustrated in the catch statistics of Lake Ontario:

By 1920 the lamprey population was on the increase, and by 1930 the fish were attacking lake trout, their favourite prey—evident in the dwindling commercial catch of that fish. In 1939 fishers harvested 285,000 pounds of trout in Lake Ontario; in 1944 they caught only 78,000; in 1949, 22,000; and in 1954, 8,000. In the early 1960s, New York State closed its fishery and the province of Ontario reduced quotas to a point large enough only to provide adequate samples for study. [95]

The Lake whitefish decline was just as bad. In 1948, the whitefish catch in all of the Great Lakes was close to 5.5 million kilograms; eight years later it had dropped by more than 90 per cent to less than 455,000 kilograms. Most of that catch was coming from a single lake, Superior, where the lampreys had not taken over quite as thoroughly as elsewhere.[96] In 1981, the lake whitefish landings in Lake Ontario reached an all time low of 900 kilograms.[97]

Ironically, industrialization of the Lake Ontario basin may have prevented a total wipe-out of the native fisheries by the sea lamprey. The numerous mill dams that had contributed to the demise of the Atlantic salmon by blocking its access to spawning grounds also blocked spawning runs of sea lampreys in some streams and prevented rapid increases to maximum population levels.[98] In addition, while the lamprey benefited from increasing water temperatures, its principal food sources—the Atlantic salmon, the lake whitefish, and the lake trout, all of which reproduce at lower stream temperatures than the lamprey does, and all of which found their own choice of spawning streams shrinking—became more limited. The intensive agricultural and industrial pollution in the lower lakes may also have proved less productive for sea lampreys.[99] In short, Lake Ontario was not the best habitat for the exploding sea lamprey population. Modifications to the Welland Canal in 1845 allowed the lamprey to circumvent Niagara Falls, thus giving it access to massive new food sources, as well as to the cleaner and unobstructed northern streams of the upper Lakes.

In a geological blink of an eye, the demise of the Atlantic salmon, along with the decline of the lake whitefish and lake trout brought about by the invasion of the sea lamprey, upset a balanced and complex ecosystem that had been evolving for millennia. With the top three predators no longer able keep the prey fish population in check, the prey fish population exploded.[100] This imbalance ushered Lake Ontario into a period of massive instability that is still felt to this day.

The alewife was the first marine invader to become conspicuously established in the Great Lakes and to play a dominant role among the fish populations. Previously unknown to the waters of Lake Ontario, this six inch long prey fish of the herring family was first reported in abundance in 1873, at a time when the predatory Atlantic salmon was already greatly reduced.[101] Prior to the opening of the Erie Canal, an abundance of large predators had delayed the establishment of the alewife in Lake Ontario.[102] However, as with the sea lamprey, the presence of very dense numbers of alewives in the canal systems of New York State in the 1860s strongly suggests that shipping canals permitted the alewife to penetrate Lake Ontario in large enough numbers for colonization. By the 1880s it was described as “the most abundant fish occurring in Lake Ontario.”[103]

Many people were very enthusiastic about the new invader. In the early days of the alewife invasion, “Some people speculated that the alewife might become a valuable fish for humans as well as for piscivorous [(or fish-eating) fish]. In addition, because of their great abundance and of their great fatness, alewives might be a more-valuable resource than the fish they displaced.”[104]

This turned out not to be the case. Efforts to find a commercial market for alewives as animal food were only partially successful. More important, the harvesting of alewives for oil became unprofitable as their oil content decreased after they reached maximum abundance and exerted pressures on their food supply. Initially considered a blessing, the alewife soon became regarded as a pest. By 1965, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources stated, “The alewife presently makes up over 90% of the weight of all fish present in the Great Lakes. . . . It is so numerous that it now poses a threat to the survival of all species spawning within the Great Lakes.”[105] Unchecked alewife populations greatly modified the composition and abundance of zooplankton, upon which they fed.[106] This alteration of the food chain suppressed native species such as yellow perch, chub, and whitefish, all of which were unprepared for excessive food competition with the newcomer.[107] Even lake herring, one of the most abundant fish in Lake Ontario, was severely suppressed.[108]

Just under half a million kilograms of lake trout and over 900,000 kilograms of whitefish came out of Lake Ontario in 1879.[109] After the alewife invasion, the harvest of these two species dropped. Piscivores such as bass, trout, pickerel, walleye, and muskellunge, which initially seemed to be favored by the increase of the alewife, declined after alewives became very abundant. This appears to be the result of food and habitat competition between these species and alewives.[110] Moreover, alewives feed heavily on the larvae of other fish species. In Lake Ontario, such predation is believed to have led to the loss of deepwater planktivores such as ciscoes. Alewives have recently been shown to feed on lake trout fry as they emerge from the spawning beds after hatching.[111]

Out-of-control alewife populations also put a financial burden on shoreline property owners. As the alewife population reaches a culminant point, reduced availability of food combines with low winter temperatures to result in mass mortalities. In Lake Ontario, massive summer die-offs have occurred periodically since 1890.[112] The most extensive die-off occurred in 1967 in Lake Michigan, where several hundred million pounds of decaying fish washed onto beaches and clogged water intakes. At the time, a U.S. federal government report estimated the resultant loss to industry, municipalities, and recreational interests to be in excess of $100,000,000.[113] Despite their seasonal die-offs, alewives still make up most of the fish biomass in Lake Ontario.

Voluntary Introductions: the Common Carp and the Rainbow Smelt

By the end of the 19th century, coordination and co-operation of fishers and fisheries officials in the eight states and in the province of Ontario had proved extremely difficult. Regulatory attempts to reduce fishing intensity of valued stocks had failed. Still, with the fisheries continuing their downward slide, something had to be done, and it had to be done quickly. The seemingly logical answer to the demise of native fish was to artificially augment stocks by introducing new species.[114] Unfortunately, by introducing common carp and rainbow smelt into Lake Ontario, the only thing that late 19th and early 20th century fisheries managers really managed to do was to further imbalance an ecosystem already under severe stress.

The intentional introduction of the common carp has had far-reaching effects on the ecology of Lake Ontario and its fisheries. Originally from Asia, the common carp had been cultured in European fish ponds for centuries before it was brought to the New World by European immigrants. This fresh-water species was introduced into the Great Lakes basin in 1831 and raised in ponds so as to augment declining commercial food fish, especially lake whitefish and lake trout. But before growing public distaste for the species severely reduced its widespread stocking in the late 1890s, the carp had already escaped from its controlled environment. It was found in the Great Lakes as early as 1893, apparently filling in the ecological niche once occupied by the sturgeon. This swapping of niche, however, was not without environmental consequences.[115]

Within 19 years of the introduction of carp, the Ontario Department of Fish and Game concluded that it had been a “fisheries nightmare,” and that “the promiscuous introduction of carp in this continent has been attended with nothing but evil results.”[116] The carp is an omnivorous fish that feeds by uprooting aquatic vegetation. In the process, it stirs up vast quantities of sediments, creating mudstorms along lakebeds. The turbid waters hinder sight-feeding predatory fish, cover and damage eggs, and limit light penetration required for photosynthesis. The aggressive eating behaviour of the carp further deteriorates habitat by destroying aquatic vegetation used by fish and waterfowl for food and cover. Furthermore, the carp is very prolific and competes for food and space with other fish species such as the whitefish.[117] Lastly, the carp has never been a commercially desirable species; nor has it appealed to sport fishermen. In fact, the carp has cost millions of dollars in eradication efforts over the years.[118]

In Reflections in a Tarnished Mirror, The Use and Abuse of the Great Lakes, Tom Kuchenberg remarks, “If the results of the carp planting frenzy was [sic] a strong indication that it was not wise to disturb the species balance, the smelt experience was final confirmation.”[119] Indeed, after attempts to reintroduce Atlantic salmon in Lake Ontario and the other Great Lakes dismally failed, government agencies planted Japanese salmon in Lake Michigan. As rainbow smelt happened to be one of the salmon’s favoured foods, smelt were thoughtfully planted along with the Japanese salmon in both 1906 and 1912.

While the Japanese salmon failed to reproduce, the rainbow smelt thrived and found their ways to all of the Great Lakes by the 1930s, becoming one of the biggest fisheries. Smelt may have also entered Lake Ontario from the Finger Lakes of New York, where they were introduced in 1917.[120] In any case, a significant Lake Ontario smelt fishery developed in the early 1950s with yearly catches around 115,000 kilograms.[121] Unfortunately, the success of the species came at a high cost: Through food competion, the rainbow smelt contributed, along with overfishing, to the decline of the lake herring and the lake whitefish.[122]

Other Marine Invaders: Fleas, Fish, and Zebra Mussels

The lamprey, alewife, carp, and smelt are only a few of the species that have been introduced into the Great Lakes over the past two centuries. A 1993 report by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission notes that human-induced modifications to the natural environment have made the Great Lakes increasingly more vulnerable to invasion by aquatic species. An average of one organism has invaded each year in the past 15 years.[123] The construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, like the Erie and Welland Canals, greatly increased ship traffic on the Great Lakes, and with it, the potential for the invasion of exotic species. In fact, since its completion in 1959, almost 30 per cent of the Great Lakes’ exotic species have been discovered; many of these were introduced in the ballast water of ships that entered the lakes through the Seaway.[124] Increased ship traffic may have led to the introduction of recent invaders such as the spiny water flea (a tiny freshwater flea that feeds on plankton) and three fish (the tubenose goby, round goby, and ruffe). Each of these marine invaders has had repercussions on the native ecosystem of Lake Ontario. However, none has yet modified the ecosystem in the way the zebra mussel has.

A native of Eastern Europe, the zebra mussel came from a tanker that discharged its ballast water into Lake St. Clair in 1988. Once released, this tiny mollusc quickly reproduced and spread. Indeed, within three years, it had extensively colonized Lake Ontario. Today, zebra mussels are common in the Rideau Canal System, the Trent-Severn Waterway, New York State’s canal system, the Ohio River drainage basin, and all the way down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.[125]

The larvae of this prolific mussel attach to any hard surface and feed by filtering plankton. An individual female can produce up to a million eggs in a season. The densities of adult females can be thousands per square metre of rock area. Workers at Detroit’s power generating plant have found as many as 750,000 mussels per square metre in the plant’s water intake canal. Because of their high abundance, zebra mussels can filter incredible amounts of algae out of the water column. Studies suggest, for example, that the zebra mussel population in the western basin of Lake Erie can probably filter that whole basin of water many times a day.[126]

Zebra mussels’ extraordinary filtering capacity could, by disrupting the food web, profoundly alter the ecological structure of the Great Lakes. In Lake Ontario, fish production has already decreased as a result of a decline in phytoplankton biomass. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) attributes this decline to both water quality improvements (from sewage treatment plant construction and the introduction of phosphorous-free detergent) and zebra mussels.[127] In addition, zebra mussels are threatening to eliminate about half of the Great Lakes’ 24 native species of unionids, a group that includes large mussels and clams. Clustering on these molluscs, the zebra mussels kill them by preventing them from opening and feeding.[128]

Expenses associated with removing zebra mussels from water intake structures and aquatic machinery increased steadily between 1989 and 1995. Ontario Hydro estimates that it has spent $4 million putting zebra mussel control systems into place at its two nuclear stations on the shores of Lake Ontario; it puts the ongoing operating cost for the system at up to $400,000 annually.[129] Total costs for zebra mussel control in all the Great Lakes have been estimated at between U.S.$69 million and U.S.$120 million, and could reach U.S.$5 billion by the year 2000.[130] By that time, the mussel is expected to have colonized virtually all freshwater systems in North America. Recently, problems associated with fouling have declined because most facilities that utilize raw water containing zebra mussels now employ chlorination feeds in water intake lines to kill mussel larvae. The use of chlorinated water or of any other chemical method, however, further exposes the ecosystem to potential environmental concerns.

Scientists are presently working towards preventing the future invasion of tiny organisms such as bacteria and viruses found in the ballast water of ships destined for the Great Lakes. Some of the technologies experimented with include filtration, heat, ultra-violet light, and advanced pathogen control devices.[131] However, a cheaper alternative is available: Most freshwater organisms imported from other parts of the world would be killed instantaneously if ocean going vessels replaced their freshwater ballast with seawater before entering the Great Lakes. The U.S. has passed legislation requiring all tankers destined for America to exchange their ballast water at sea.[132] Meanwhile, Canada relies on voluntary compliance instead of stringent ballast water regulation.[133]


Back in 1900, in the Second Annual Report of the Department of Fisheries of the Province of Ontario, overseer Ward, in charge of the Toronto region, reported: “The continued scarcity of whitefish is accounted for by the changing conditions of the bottom of the Lake, and it is claimed by some of the fishermen that the filth discharged by the city has driven the fish from their old feeding grounds and I have seen nets filled with what appeared to be refuse from stables, which goes to show that the assertion is not without foundation.”[134] Similar comments appeared in the fourth, sixth, eighth, and subsequent annual reports, but were largely ignored.[135]

During the 1960s, enormous algal blooms were frequently observed and normal aquatic life disappeared from waters adjacent to densely industrialized and populated areas. Large odoriferous masses of decaying filamentous algae, Cladophora, piled up on some beaches and created problems along nearly all of Lake Ontario’s shoreline.[136] Studies conducted throughout the 1970s indicated continuous algal growth from Hamilton to Toronto. From Toronto to Kingston, Cladophora proliferated on about a third of the shoreline. On the south side, from Niagara to Rochester, it proliferated on two-thirds of the shoreline, and on 79 per cent east of Rochester.[137] Once large algae mats settled at the bottom of the lake, oxygen-consuming bacteria decomposed them; the process severely depleted oxygen in the bottom waters, thus endangering aquatic life. The proliferation of nuisance algae also reduced the abundance of rooted aquatic plants, extirpated offshore fish which relied on nearshore habitat features for their survival, and interfered, although to a less extent, with nearshore fish. Species such as carp and white perch, which are relatively tolerant of deteriorating water and habitat quality, subsequently invaded and became abundant in nearshore areas.[138]

The severe and visible degradation of Lake Ontario aroused public concern, and, in turn, prompted a review of the Lower Lakes in 1969 by the International Joint Commission (IJC). Studies by Canada and the U.S. identified eutrophication (a process in which excessive plant growth and its subsequent decay robs waters of oxygen, making them inhospitable to fish) as a problem caused by excessive inputs of nutrients; phosphorus was subsequently identified as the key nutrient controlling eutrophication.[139] Controlling nutrient sources from all of the Great Lakes was vital to restoring Lake Ontario’s health since the Upper Lakes contributed, by way of the Niagara River, 86 per cent of Lake Ontario’s total tributary inflow and its largest loading of phosphorus.[140] In 1972, in order to control the major sources of phosphorus to the Great Lakes (municipal and industrial wastes, and urban and agricultural runoff) the U.S. and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA).[141]

Following revisions, in 1978, to the GLWQA, target loads for phosphorus concentrations decreased gradually. Targets have been achieved in several recent years.[142] Nutrients from municipal and industrial sources have dropped substantially, with reductions of 50 per cent from municipal sources and 85 per cent from industrial sources since 1976. As a result, eutrophication has subsided somewhat. In the nearshore zones, a 58 per cent reduction of Cladophora growth occurred between 1972 and 1983.[143] However, run-off from urban areas and agricultural lands into tributaries constitutes another major, and more difficult to abate, source of phosphorus. Indeed, despite decreases in the order of 30 per cent, phosphorus from run-off sources still amounts to roughly twice the phosphorus contributed by sewage treatment plants.[144]

The reduction in nutrients directly available to algae and other plants has affected both nearshore and offshore fish communities. Offshore changes indicate that Lake Ontario is tending towards its historically prevalent oligotrophic conditions: It is becoming, once again, relatively poor in plant nutrients and relatively rich in dissolved oxygen available to aquatic life. The shift in the balance of tiny plant species, away from nuisance blue-green algae and toward more desirable and historically prevalent plankton, reflects this change.[145] In recent years, the reverse of the eutrophication process in many nearshore areas has facilitated a resurgence of historically prevalent fish species. For example, white perch populations in the Bay of Quinte have declined while walleye and whitefish are reappearing.[146]

Eutrophication remains a problem in many nearshore areas, particularly in tributaries, bays, and coastal marshes. In seven of the eight harbours recently tested by OMNR, phosphorus levels exceeded provincial guidelines. Around Lake Ontario, five Areas of Concern (areas identified by the IJC as having the worst problems) still experience eutrophication and/or harbour undesirable algae.[147]

Efforts to Revive the Fisheries

By the 1950s, it was no longer possible for anyone to ignore the badly degraded and highly altered ecosystem of the Great Lakes. Faced with an ecosystem on the verge of collapse, fisheries officials redoubled their efforts to revive the fisheries and the industries depending on them.

Sea Lamprey Control

Efforts to control the sea lamprey began in the early 1940s in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. Attempts to catch the lamprey behind dams, weirs, and traps failed dismally. A series of other methods, from electrical shocking devices to sound and lights to fine mesh screens designed to strain the stream flow and catch the metamorphosed larvae before they entered the lakes, also failed. By 1951, researchers began searching for what amounted to a needle in a hay stack: a chemical poison that would be selective only for the lamprey and that would be harmless to other species.

Meanwhile, the destruction caused by the lamprey was so widespread and devastating that after decades of failing to coordinate their efforts, Canada and the U.S. signed the Great Lakes Fishery Convention in 1955. The convention led to the formation of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC), whose  mandate was to coordinate research and management of the fisheries, including lamprey-control efforts.

Finally, after years of extensive research on the life cycle of the sea lamprey and methods of control, scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service discovered a chemical that killed the stream-dwelling larvae before they transformed and moved downstream to the lakes. During the 1960s, 3-trifluoromethyl-4-nitrophenol (TFM) was applied repeatedly in the tributaries of Lakes Michigan, Superior, and Huron, where it successfully reduced the sea lamprey populations to about 10 per cent of their pretreatment levels. TFM was finally introduced to Lake Ontario in 1971.[148]

Alewife Control

In the context of heavy lamprey predation, the stocking of hatchery bred lake trout may have helped to save the trout from extinction. In most other cases, however, the introduction of hatchery bred stocks have only further imbalance the Great Lakes ecosystem. Attempts to control the out-of-control alewife population offer one example.

Following heavy sea lamprey predation, the open waters of Lake Ontario were devoid of large piscivores. Populations of small-bodied exotic species, such as alewife and rainbow smelt, exploded in offshore waters.[149] Amidst a recreation boom that started in the early 1960s, fisheries managers saw a golden opportunity in alewives.[150] Indeed, if the sea lamprey could be controlled, and if alewives provided highly prized predators such as the lake trout with an abundant source of forage food, depressed populations could rebound to their former abundance and once again sustain healthy fisheries. The only problem was that lake trout would take considerable time to reestablish themselves in large numbers. Impatient anglers wanted large fish, now.[151]

And so in 1969, under pressure to control alewife and smelt populations, and encouraged by anglers starved for large and aggressive predators, the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests released 130,000 coho smolt (young salmon) into Lake Ontario, creating a sport fishery overnight. John Power, an outdoor writer for the Toronto Star, describe the salmon-stocking program as “a genie that could not be stuffed back into the bottle.”[152] In the following 20 years, both Ontario and New York State experimented with a variety of stocking programs. Although they planted rainbow trout and brown trout, their most successful introductions were chinook salmon and lake trout. In 1980, Ontario and New York stocked 4.9 million trout and salmon. At that time, lake trout dominated the mix, followed by rainbow trout and chinook salmon. Following the application of lampricide in Lake Ontario, the survival of stocked trout and salmon improved, and hatchery programs expanded. By 1984, 8 million fish were raised and stocked each year, 4.5 million of which were chinook.

By deciding to introduce fast-growing Pacific salmonids into Lake Ontario, fisheries biologists not only alleviated the suppression of native species such as yellow perch by unchecked alewife populations but also created a multi-million dollar sport fishing industry. But just when Lake Ontario’s managers thought they had salvaged the lake’s fisheries from the sea lamprey and the alewife, another threat loomed over the native and stocked species alike. Indeed, only a few years after the lake trout and salmon stocking craze began, Lake Ontario scientists realized that toxic chemicals were contaminating the food web and accumulating in many of the predators at levels unsafe for both the fish and the people who ate them.[153] In 1977, health concerns prompted New York state to suspend further salmon planting.[154]

Toxic Contamination

The Great Lakes watershed houses one of the world’s greatest industrial complexes. As the use of manufactured chemicals grew exponentially, especially after World War II, so did the massive dumping into the environment of the by-products and wastes of industrial processes. Today, industries and cities discharge over 30,000 different chemicals into the Great Lakes; only 362 of the chemicals are reliably monitored. About one-third of the monitored chemicals are known to have acute or chronic toxic effects.[155]

The health threat posed by toxic chemicals to humans and to a wide range of species including fish, birds, amphibians, invertebrates, and mammals comes from their ability to cross the placenta in mammals, to bioaccumulate, and to persist in the environment for long periods of times. Subtle effects have been observed at extremely low concentrations. Interference with the endocrine system, which regulates hormonal activity in people and wildlife, is the effect most frequently associated with synthetic organic contaminants found in many industrial and agricultural chemicals. By interfering with cell-to-cell communication, mimicking natural hormones, and triggering wrong biological responses, synthetic compounds disrupt normal hormonal functions and cause potentially life-threatening and irreversible neurobehavioural or developmental damage. Documented effects on wildlife include immune and thyroid system disorders, disrupted sexual development (feminization of males and masculinization of females), decreased fertility, and birth defects.[156]

The toxic contamination of waters and sediments has affected Lake Ontario’s fish in a number of ways. Exposure to toxic chemicals has caused both benign and malignant tumours in fish. As early as 1970, reports documenting thyroid enlargements in coho salmon appeared.[157] In 1990, tumours and deformities affecting skin, liver, and gonads were identified in seven fish species from 16 locations in western Lake Ontario and the Niagara River watershed.[158] In the Great Lakes in general, tumour outbreaks have occurred in populations of bottom dwelling species, including brown bullhead, white sucker, common carp, bowfin, and freshwater drum. Common carp primarily exhibit gonadal tumours; freshwater drum primarily have neural tumours that are externally visible. White sucker and brown bullhead exhibit skin and liver neoplasms (newly formed tumours that may or may not become cancerous and that are not readily seen as a lump or bump).[159] Moreover, a recent study of toxic chemicals in the Great Lakes found that the levels of dioxin and related chemicals in Lake Ontario between 1945 and 1975 were high enough to have prevented the survival of lake trout sac fry, thus dooming fisheries managers’ efforts to reintroduce this native species.[160]

The 1978 amendment to the GLWQA between Canada and the U.S. focused on the elimination of toxic substances. Both countries committed to restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Great Lake ecosystem.[161] The IJC selected 11 critical pollutants based on their persistence, their tendency to bio-accumulate in organisms as they climb the food chain, their potential interaction with other chemicals, their detrimental effects on biota and human health, and their presence in the Great Lakes.[162] Included in the list were such well-known pollutants as dioxins, furans, PCBs, mercury, and DDT.

Since the IJC intervention in the mid-1970s and subsequent changes in industrial practices, the overall contamination level for Lake Ontario has improved dramatically, with significant declines in environmental concentrations of most of the critical contaminants for which data are available.[163] However, while contaminant concentrations have declined in top predators, several water quality objectives and criteria regarding toxins in fish tissues are still exceeded.[164] The persistence of toxic contaminants is due to their ongoing release from contaminated sediments, continual atmospheric deposition, undetected release from various processes, and accidental or illegal discharges.

Consumption Advisories

The high levels of toxins present in Lake Ontario’s waters and fish, along with striking abnormalities observed in fish, fish-eating birds, and mammals, have raised legitimate concerns regarding the safety of consuming the lake’s fish. Ontario’s Sport Fish Contaminant Monitoring Program and New York’s Statewide Toxic Substances Monitoring Program have measured contaminant concentrations in fish from the nearshore waters of the Great Lakes since the early and mid-1970s, respectively.[165] The results have been used to provide the public with sport fish consumption guidelines.[166]

In its 1997 Guide to Eating Ontario Sport Fish, the Province of Ontario advised against consuming any of the following species caught in Lake Ontario’s northern waters: channel catfish over 20 cm, white perch over 30 cm, freshwater drum and smallmouth bass over 45 cm, lake trout, American eel, walleye, and carp larger than 65 cm. It also advised limiting consumption of many more species to between one and eight times a month. It warned women of childbearing age and children under fifteen not to consume any fish in the one meal per month category.[167]

As for catches on the American side of Lake Ontario, the New York State Department of Health recommends against eating American eel, channel catfish, carp, lake trout, chinook salmon, coho salmon over 53 cm, rainbow trout over 63.5 cm, and brown trout over 51 cm. White sucker, white perch, smaller coho salmon, rainbow trout, and brown trout should not make up more than one meal per month. Women of childbearing age and children under 15 are advised not to consume any fish for which there are consumption advisories.[168]

Others have issued even stricter warnings. Researchers at SUNY Oswego’s Center for Neurobehavioral Effects of Environmental Toxics noted “subtle, yet significant effects of maternal fish consumption on neonatal behaviour.” They conclude:

There is insufficient data at this time to determine what effects these toxicants, singly or in combination, may be having on those exposed to them prenatally via maternal fish consumption. Given these uncertainties, we urge . . . the strictest possible fish consumption advisory for women of childbearing age. It is our opinion that this population should be advised to consume no Great Lakes fish at all until such time as sound research provides strong support for a safe level of exposure.[169]

Four pollutants are responsible for the consumption restrictions on Lake Ontario’s fish. Contamination by PCBs has caused 50 per cent of the restrictions; contamination by mirex, mercury, and dioxin has caused 27, 22, and one per cent respectively. Of course, other toxic substances also contaminate Lake Ontario’s fish; however, it is the above toxins that have led to consumption advisories.[170] Appendix A summarizes the origins and potential health effects of selected toxins found in Lake Ontario’s fish. The western end of the lake and the Niagara River appear to be major sources of contaminants, including chlorinated organic compounds (or organochlorines) such as PCBs, DDT, and mirex.[171] Measurements indicate high PCB levels in the tissues of clams at the outfall of Occidental Chemical Corporation’s sewer in Niagara Falls, New York. Contaminated clams are also found in Gill Creek, downstream of the Du Pont and Olin Corporation plants in Niagara Falls. These are not the only sources of PCBs but they may be among the largest known sources of PCBs to the Niagara River and Lake Ontario.[172] Other hot spots are found along and at the mouth of the Humber River. Even outside of these hotspots, PCB concentrations in fish across much of the Great Lakes basin exceed both the IJC objectives for the protection of biological resources and the state and provincial criteria for human consumption of fish.[173] Bio-monitoring studies using clams indicate that the primary source of mirex is a sewer from the Occidental plant in Niagara Falls.[174] Probable sources of mercury likewise include industrial operations in western areas along with sediments contaminated by former industrial operations and sewage treatment plants in the Bay of Quinte watershed.[175] These contaminants have closed fisheries for decades.

In the 1970s, mercury contamination caused the closing of Lake Ontario’s northern pike, eel, and yellow perch fisheries.[176] Today, although mercury levels are declining, mercury restrictions are prominent among the nearshore species in the Kingston Basin and the Bay of Quinte and in many of the industrialized harbours in the western basin.[177] Whereas PCBs and mirex predominate in the cold-water fish that are more common in the central and western basins of Lake Ontario, mercury is found only in the cool- and warm-water species that predominate in the eastern basin. This suggests that mercury contamination in Lake Ontario is primarily a nearshore problem while PCBs, mirex, and possibly dioxins are a more widespread problem.[178]

Lake Ontario’s lake trout have higher concentrations of both dioxins and furans than do the trout in the other Great Lakes. In 1992, dioxin concentrations in lake trout were 14 times higher than in the fish in the other Great Lakes.[179] Furan levels are almost twice as high as those found in lake trout from Lake Superior, the next most furan-laden lake trout.[180] Monitoring studies conducted by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on contaminant concentrations in rainbow smelt provide information on contaminant trends one trophic level below the lake trout, coho salmon, and walleye. Samples from Lake Ontario smelt consistently have the highest concentrations of PCBs and total DDT when compared to samples from smelt in the other Great Lakes.[181] Although DDT was banned in 1968, it is still present in lake and tributary sediments. The concentrations of this insecticide in Lake Ontario fish are still very near the IJC objective.[182]

Although most contaminants in Lake Ontario’s flora and fauna have declined substantially since first monitored, declines in PCBs, DDT, and other organochlorines appear to have stabilized, or, in some cases, reversed in recent years.[183] The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans notes that there was little, if any, change in mean concentrations of dioxin in Lake Ontario’s lake trout between 1977 and 1992.[184] The continued decline of contaminants in Lake Ontario’s waters suggests that pollution may not be directly responsible for the increase in the flora and fauna’s contaminant levels. Studies suggest that major changes in the food web, which were observed concurrently with the slowing and reversal in contaminant declines, may be responsible. Such changes may alter the pathways that chemical contaminants follow as they bioaccumulate up the food chain to top predator species.[185]

Lake Ontario’s Fisheries Today

Over the past centuries, the Lake Ontario ecosystem seems to have been aboard a long roller coaster ride characterized by more downs than ups. Today, despite massive investment of resources in the rehabilitation of Lake Ontario, Environment Canada does not see “any indication of improvement of system health.”[186] True, the past 25 years have brought solutions to problems that were thought unsolvable: TFM put a stop, at least temporarily, to the out-of-control sea lamprey population; phosphorus loading targets in Lake Ontario have been met and eutrophication brought under control in many cases; chemical pollution has decreased; and the lake trout and salmon populations increased markedly between 1973 and 1988 as a result of intensive stocking efforts, creating a thriving sport fishery. However, these temporary fixes have contributed little to reestablishing the wider integrity and stability of the Lake Ontario ecosystem and its fisheries.

Decline in Primary Productivity

Just as significant as ongoing toxic contamination, and further hindering the recovery of Lake Ontario’s ecosystem, are the shifts in the fish community that have occurred in response to fundamental changes in the lake’s primary productivity. In the last seven years, significant declines in phosphorus levels have affected Lake Ontario’s zooplankton—the pivotal element of the food chain in lake ecosystems, which depends mainly on phosphorus for its growth. A decline in the abundance of nearshore and offshore zooplankton, particularly in the eastern basin of Lake Ontario, was noted as early as 1983. Since then, zooplankton has decreased by at least 50 per cent.[187] The declining supply of plankton can only support smaller overall populations of plankton consumers, including alewives.[188] Predictably, hydroacoustics and trawler surveys point to a gradual decline in the biomass of alewives and smelt over the past 12 years. The 1996 catches of alewife were the weakest since 1981.[189] Since the alewife is Lake Ontario’s most abundant fish species in terms of both numbers and biomass, its numbers shape the entire fish community in Lake Ontario.[190] Not surprisingly, declines in its numbers are now being reflected in a resurgence of walleye, whitefish, and yellow perch.[191]

Salmon and trout predation also regulates the alewife population. In fact, it is the principal mechanism used by fisheries managers to control Lake Ontario’s fisheries. Stocking by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) determines the predator demand for prey, including the alewife.[192]  Of course, the relationship works both ways: As the availability of prey in Lake Ontario declines, the populations of salmon and trout also decline. OMNR reports that catches of salmon and trout for the offshore fishery peaked in 1986 at 700,000 fish, and declined to a 1995 low of 200,000 fish. Although reduced fishing efforts, poor weather, and a poor economy have influenced harvest levels, the trend in the food chain towards reduced levels of nutrients, plankton, and prey in Lake Ontario has had the most significant impact on offshore fish production. As alewives make up between 60 and 80 per cent of the diets of Chinook salmon, lake trout, and walleye, further declines in alewife populations could reduce the dominance of these predators and have repercussions on the sport fishery.[193] Indeed, in the early 1980s, after the Lake Michigan alewife population plummeted to one-tenth of its former size, the survival rate of stocked Chinook declined dramatically, virtually killing the sport fishery.

By 1990, fisheries specialists were beginning to question whether it was possible to sustain a high level of stocking in Lake Ontario without inviting disaster. The annual release of up to 8 million hatchery-bred salmon and trout into the lake has left fisheries managers uncertain with respect to the food supply necessary to maintain such numbers. Artificially stocked salmon, and to a lesser extent trout, are now eating up to 30 per cent of the alewife population. Ecologists warn that in an ocean environment, every stock of clupeid fish, of which the alewife is a member, has collapsed or disappeared when levels of exploitation approached 40 to 50 per cent of total production.[194]

Balancing Prey and Predator Fish

In 1992, OMNR and NYSDEC estimated that the demand on alewives by predatory trout and salmon had the potential to exceed the supply of alewives; if stocking were maintained, they warned, alewife numbers would not rebound after a difficult winter. To stabilize the predator/prey population and to ensure that a diverse sport fishery could be maintained, fisheries managers agreed to maintain alewives as the dominant forage species and to reduce predator numbers. Between 1991 and 1994, Ontario and New York reduced the number of predators stocked in Lake Ontario from 8 million to 4.5 million, bringing about a 47 per cent decline in predator demand.[195] Since then, stocking levels have been maintained at 4.5 million fish per year.[196]

In a 1996 report on the status of the Lake Ontario offshore pelagic fish communities, NYSDEC noted that the rate of decline in productivity has slowed; that there remains a high risk of a “serious imbalance of predator and prey levels that could destabilized the fish community and most likely negatively impact chinook salmon, and positively impact native species”; that increases in stocking beyond 4.5 million fish a year would augment this risk; and finally that the chance of a non-recoverable collapse of the alewife population is low.[197] The report noted that the full impact of zebra and quagga mussels on productivity, however, is still not understood. Prey fish production may already have adjusted to lower levels of nutrient supply, but may be further adjusting to impacts associated with the mussels.[198]

Competition Between Exotic and Native Species

Salmon and trout aren’t the only species affected by alewife populations. Alewives’ dependence on plankton, coupled with their sheer abundance, put them into direct competition with all other fish species which also rely on zooplankton for food at some point in their lives. While this competition may only be temporary for large predators, it is life-long for other smaller species. The initial response of the fish community to currently depressed alewife populations and improved environmental conditions suggests that native fish species such as lake trout, lake whitefish, lake herring, three-spine stickleback, and emerald shiner will benefit from alewife declines.[199] In order to favour the reproduction of these native species, fisheries agencies are thinking of raising the number of stocked fish back to 6 million a year so as to maintain constant pressures on the alewife population.[200]

Despite the fact that the creation of a sport fishery in Lake Ontario based on exotic salmonids has benefited some native species (and has produced short-term economic and political returns), the stocking of predators may also (even paradoxically) conflict with the longer term goals of re-establishing a self-sustaining fishery based on native species, such as lake trout, that may compete with the exotics for an alewife diet.[201] After many decades of trying to figure out what to do with the alewife, scientists are no closer to agreeing on a solution. Some now argue that fisheries managers should not view the alewife as forage for stocked salmon; rather they advocate re-establishing and maintaining a healthy native fish community by letting alewife stocks decline naturally.[202]

Rehabilitation and Disease

From 1993 to 1995, after 20 years of stocking, significant natural reproduction of lake trout was observed in Lake Ontario. Gradually declining alewife abundance along with the alewives’ shift, during the spring, to the lake’s deeper waters likely contributed to increased natural reproduction among lake trout.[203] Indeed, these factors may have allowed lake trout fry to emerge from shoals and grow to a size where they would no longer be vulnerable to alewife predation.[204] Coho and chinook salmon have also developed small wild populations after being stocked for 25 years. No wild populations of Atlantic salmon have yet been observed, but it may still be too early, as intensive rehabilitation efforts did not begin in Ontario tributaries until 1988. Given as much time to adapt to Lake Ontario as other salmon and trout species have had, Atlantic salmon has the potential to become a member of the wild migratory salmonid community in Lake Ontario.[205]

Another factor, however, may impede the natural reproduction of lake trout and Atlantic salmon. Recent investigations suggest that an enzyme carried by the alewife—thiaminase— destroys vitamin B1 in the Atlantic salmon and lake trout that eat alewives. Female Atlantic salmon and lake trout that feed extensively on alewives become B1 deficient; as a result, the fry that hatch from their eggs die when they are only a few weeks old. This finding implicates the invasion of Lake Ontario by the alewife in the extinction of the native Atlantic salmon in the late 1800s. The alewife may likewise have contributed to the general failure of stocked lake trout to reproduce in Lakes Michigan and Ontario, where the alewife is a major food source for lake trout.[206]

Part Two: Past Wrongs and Future Rights

Part One of this paper has documented the historical and contemporary health of Lake Ontario’s fisheries. While the adverse consequences of some events clearly were unpredictable, many if not most crisis could have been avoided. Engineers who built the Erie Canal cannot be blamed for failing to foresee the subsequent invasion of exotic species and their catastrophic effects on the lake ecosystem. On the other hand, the harmful effects of overfishing, domestic and industrial pollution, and habitat degradation and destruction were observed year after year. Why weren’t corrective actions taken? What political, industrial, and social conditions conspired to create the fishery described in 1971 by Canadian biologist Douglas Pilmott as  “depressed and chaotic” and as an “epic case of man’s mismanagement of natural environments”?[207] What institutions were responsible, and how can they be reformed in order to avoid future crises?

The Ghost of Nineteenth Century Utilitarianism

In the late 19th century, agencies responsible for fisheries management were born and matured under the “progressive gospel of efficiency,” a concept that placed science at the heart of progressive thinking and allowed scientists the illusion of controlling—perhaps even improving upon—nature.[208] The new era required that public decisions be made on an objective basis, replacing the ineffective and often corrupt patronage systems of the past. From then on, government would rely on neutral experts to administer its affairs “in the public interest,” furthering the utilitarian ideal of providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people for the longest time.[209]

Early fisheries managers saw the application of scientific principles to resource development as the key to economic progress that would, in turn, lead to a prosperous society: Eliminate scarcity, by increasing efficiency, and a new era of affluence would follow.[210] Or so it was thought. Fishing technology improved, fish hatcheries mushroomed, the stocks of artificially-bred fish increased, and more and more fish were landed. Meanwhile, this enthusiasm for growth and this unlimited faith in technology blinded fisheries managers to the realization that such “progress” came at a price—namely the decreasing quantity and quality of the same natural capital that allowed the progress.

Still, the “wise-use” ethos, based on the inherent assumption that it is possible through central, scientific planning to improve an ecosystem, carried on. In the late 1940s, researchers committed to the notion of wise-use developed what may have been one of the most significant—and damaging—contributions to fisheries management: the theory that fish stocks are controlled by self-regulating environmental conditions rather than by the size of spawning stocks.

This meant that fish stocks, even if depleted one year, could be relied on to restore themselves the following year. If it was almost impossible to permanently deplete fish stocks, then regulations controlling fishing could safely be relaxed, even discarded. Thus, researchers legitimized a policy of greater access to Great Lakes fish stocks and less regulation of fishing. . . . In the 1950s and 1960s, the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests (ODLF) adopted just such a policy, progressively liberalizing fishery regulations. From 1946 to 1960, the ODLF set as its objective the widest possible use of fish resources. They considered regulations hindering full use of the fish resource to be a danger as great as overfishing. The burden of proof lay on those who favoured regulations; in the absence of strong evidence that regulation were required, they would not be imposed, or would be relaxed or removed.[211]

For decades, fisheries science supported an open-access and maximum use fishery policy, the consequences of which are still felt to this day.[212] While open-access has long been discredited, the wise-use philosophy is perpetuated, its ghost deeply anchored in the institutional memories and interests of resource management agencies. Managers’ ongoing reliance on available scientific knowledge and technology to solve problems, along with their tendency to disregard problems in the absence of technological solutions, attest to the prevalence of the wise-use ethos. Remanent of the philosophy are likewise reflected in what Herman Daly and John Cobb Jr. refer to as contemporary managers’ tendencies “to treat the negative effects as secondary, as a necessary price for a crucial advance.”[213] In other words, managers have too often been oblivious to the externalities (or spillover costs) created by their actions, dismissing them as inevitable.  In the words of Daly and Cobb, “As long as externalities involve minor details, this is perhaps a reasonable procedure. But when vital issues (e.g., the capacity of the earth to support life) have to be classed as externalities, it is time to restructure basic concepts and start with a different set of abstractions that can embrace what was previously external.”[214]

Proponents of wise-use, or those who have pressed for efficient, centrally planned fisheries, have opposed long established Aboriginal fisheries that did not fit in with their doctrine. The report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, released in November 1996, points out that “for a long time managers favoured efficiency in resource use above other considerations, and based on their professional training, managers defined what efficiency is.” Aboriginal peoples thus lost their access to resources to “more efficient” non-Aboriginal resource users.[215] The “public interest” effectively levelled the interests of Aboriginal minorities. Combined with the government’s failure to fulfill treaty promises, the proliferation of new regulations, the denial of access to traditional fishing sites due to encroaching non-Aboriginal settlement, and fishing competition at the mouth of rivers, the wise-use movement ultimately destroyed many customary, locally based Aboriginal fisheries.[216]

Res Nullius: The Real Tragedy

In 1968, biologist Garrett Hardin coined a phrase that was to change irrevocably the way in which we think about resource management: the tragedy of the commons. Hardin argued that an individual who uses an open-access resource—a commons—shirks responsibility to the community or group out of rational self-interest.[217] The individual’s failure to take into account the costs of his actions makes the group as a whole worse off. Hardin used the example of herdsmen on a common pasture. Pursuing his own best interest, each increases the size of his herd, ultimately ruining the commons for all.[218] Substitute Hardin’s overgrazing of the fields by overfishing, pollution, or the introduction of exotic species through ballast water, and the parable could end the same way.

It is important to distinguish between Hardin’s use of the term “commons” and the notion of resources held and managed “in common” by a defined group or community. Bromley distinguishes between “resources controlled and managed as common property, or as state property, or as private property” and “resources over which no property rights have been recognized.” The latter are called “open-access resources,” or res nullius, which is Latin for “no one’s property.”[219] Hardin’s concerns centred on the latter. What he described as the “tragedy of the commons” could more accurately have been coined “the tragedy of res nullius.”

The history of the Bay of Quinte well illustrates the tragedy of res nullius. “At the turn of the century,” explains the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, “fishers there were anxious to preserve the viability of their industry but were unable to practise conservation on an individual level because of the need to cover operating costs and turn a profit. If they conserved fish stocks, their competitors, free-riding the commons, simply reaped the benefit by landing more fish.”[220]

In order to counteract species depletion and revive a dying industry in the Bay of Quinte, the department of fisheries implemented conservation and restocking measures, and the fishery partially rebounded. Its success seemed to justify further government intervention, such as its managing access to the fisheries, in order to keep the tragedy in check.[221] Government policies, however, only served to perpetuate the tragedy. Too often, from colonial days to the present time, government intervention has undermined local-level institutional arrangements, thus creating the very chaotic state in the fisheries which they wanted to avoid. In the Bay of Quinte as in other areas, where finely tuned customary arrangements regarding the use of common property had once existed, the institutional genocide carried on through government policies created a de facto regime of nonproperty, or unmanaged open-access—the very type of resource management that inevitably leads to resource depletion or degradation. Indeed, all too often it has been the replacement of common property by res nullius which has caused the real tragedy.

Granted, local institutions governing resource use were historically not prevalent in every community, especially non-Aboriginal ones. Additionally, the immensity of Lake Ontario and the sheer quantities harvested from its waters for a long period of time, combined with the pace of settlement and industrialization, did not always allow for the evolution of workable institutions. Yet, where they existed, they often resulted in sustainable harvests. By contrast, the government’s attempts at managing the fisheries by excluding users, denying their local institutional arrangements, and destroying their self-governing values resulted in regulations that were largely ignored, ultimately yielding highly degraded fisheries.

Technically, following the government’s intervention, the open-access fishery became one controlled and managed as state property. Practically, however, the effects remained unchanged: Although a limited number of fishers were granted licences by the Ontario Department of Lands and Resources around the 1920s, those with licences were allowed to catch as many fish as they wanted and could not prevent other licence holders from doing the same.[222] Like the regulations introduced in the 1800s, the new licensing requirement intended to prevent resource users from pillaging the resources had no such effect. Similarly, regulations imposing restrictions on gear, seasons, open areas, and size limits remained largely ineffectual.

Redesigning Institutional Arrangements

For too long we’ve tried to deal with resource abuse from the top down and with pitifully little to show for our efforts and money. The problem, as Aldo Leopold once noted, is that for conservation to become “real and important” it must “grow from the bottom up.” It must, in other words, become fundamental to the day-to-day lives of millions of people, not just to those few professional resource managers working in public agencies.[223]

Denying the importance of place and environment, conventional resource managers believe that environmental improvement itself requires further expansion of the very activities and organizations that have ruined the environment in the first place.[224] These central planners have for a century ignored the political and ecological creativity of local people.[225] The Royal Commission on Aboriginal People emphasized that Canadians, not just Aboriginal people, want a great deal more involvement and control over broad policy decisions affecting resource management, particularly at the local level.[226] Average citizens are no longer interested in letting distant bureaucrats strip them of initiatives and power. Fisheries managers should therefore invite “outsiders” (including, ironically, fishers themselves) to more fully participate in Lake Ontario’s management. Those with considerable experience and intimate knowledge of the resources should no longer be excluded from decision making.

In A World That Takes Its Environment Seriously, David Orr points out:

As Garrett Hardin argues, problems that occur all over the world are not necessarily global problems, and some truly global problems may be solved only by lots of local solutions. Potholes in roads, according to Hardin, are a big worldwide problem, but they are not a “global” problem that has a uniform cause and a single solution applicable everywhere. A community with the will to do so can solve its pothole problem by itself.[227]

Lake Ontario’s fisheries, like Hardin’s potholes, are plagued by many problems which do not have a universal, single solution. The individuals, communities, and organizations directly affected by the problems are likely to devise unique, effective, locally appropriate solutions. However, will alone won’t enable them to do so. Good tools are as badly needed as good will; and no tools are more effective than strong, secure property rights.

Establishing strong and secure rights—either individual or communal—in Lake Ontario’s fisheries would empower fishers and fishing communities to conserve and enhance their resources. Such rights—and their related obligations—would foster the institutional arrangements which require fishers and non-fishers alike to internalize formerly external costs brought on by their activities. Only when an institutional framework promoting accountability is put in place, where fishers enjoy the full benefits of wise decisions and bear the full consequences of poor ones, will sustainable fisheries arise.

The introduction of Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) in 1984 in the Canadian waters of Lake Ontario represented a milestone whereby governments began to return a degree of control to the resource users themselves. ITQs allocate limits for specific fish species, expressed in a number of pounds, that individual licence holders are allowed to harvest and sell. Today’s commercially preferable species such as yellow perch, smelt, walleye, lake herring, trout, and whitefish are subject to quota regulation. The government closely monitors catches, but allows the fishers considerable freedom in meeting their quotas. In allocating shares of the resource to specific users and thus eliminating one of the tragic conditions of res nullius, ITQs represent a considerable improvement over the previous open-access policy.

Ironically, although ITQs vest greater decision-making powers in the fishers themselves, the system in place for Lake Ontario may represent the most control that governments have ever had on the commercial harvest. Strong central control has created numerous problems. Ostrom points out that “The optimal equilibrium achieved by following the advice to centralize control . . . is based on assumptions concerning the accuracy of information, monitoring capabilities, sanctioning reliability, and zero costs of administration.”[228] By taking these assumptions as truths, central planners often adopt misguided policies. For instance, each quota is set as a percentage of the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) which in turn is based on the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), the maximum harvest that can be obtained from year to year without depleting the resource. Determining the MSY is not only a biologically very complex process but also one that depends, among other things, on commercial fishers’ daily catch reports to the OMNR. As fishers sometimes under-report their catch, the reliability of assessment data should be of concern to fisheries managers. Moreover, the process of quota setting and allocation is vulnerable to political pressures by user groups.[229]

Other problems arising from ITQs may include increased high-grading (the discarding of less valuable—often smaller—fish in order to fill quota with more valuable—often larger—fish) and by-catch (the incidental catch of species not covered by quota). Furthermore, Lake Ontario’s quotas are neither completely secure nor fully transferable.[230] If, for whatever reasons, a quota holder does not use all of his or her quota in a given year, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources can reallocate it to more “efficient” rights holders the following year. The “use it or loose it” regime provides fishers with discentives to reduce their catches. Quotas are also reduced in value by the fact that quota holders wanting to buy or sell quotas can only do so within their own quota zones. Lastly, in their present form, ITQs do not go far enough in making either fishers or fisheries managers accountable for their actions. The main reason is that control of the commons still rests with government agencies rather than in the hands of those directly affected.

In contrast, a system in which individual fishers, or groups of them, are granted both secure rights to the fishery and control over it would encourage conservation and the regeneration of the fishery.[231] Of the several features characterizing strong property rights regimes, the ability to exclude other users is one of the most important. The power to exclude those with no rights to the resources makes possible the internalization of costs, risks, and benefits; rights holders can invest in the resource, secure in the knowledge that interlopers will not reap the benefits. Rights that are permanent also foster long-term planning rather than favouring short-term gain. Another important feature of strong property rights is their transferability. Rights holders should be able to buy out each others’ rights so that those who best manage or most value the fisheries will eventually end up controlling them. Lastly, decision-making should be seated at the local level, where the knowledge and experience of specific ecosystems is often the greatest.

Strong property rights have been credited with saving many fisheries. Indeed, in contrast to fisheries managed as unowned or state property, fisheries based on the allocation of rights— individual or collective—have often thrived. Aboriginal peoples living along the shores of the Great Lakes developed common property systems that functioned under their customary laws and that assured the survival of both their communities and the resources on which they depended. More recently, in both North America and Europe, people holding rights to fisheries have often managed their assets better than have governments.[232] In Iceland, rights holders reduce pressures on their fisheries by buying out their competitors. In 1989, the Angling Club of Reyjavik, which holds leases on 10 rivers, permanently bought out one of the country’s few remaining salmon netting operations. In Scotland, the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust purchases and retires salmon netting operations along the coast, in rivers, and in estuaries. By reducing fishing efforts, or by shutting down their newly acquired fisheries completely, the new owners effectively protect stocks and allow for recovery of past abuses. In New Brunswick, rights holders are credited with preserving some of the province’s finest salmon stocks.

Endless variations in the allocation of property rights and the coordination of rights holders can be devised. Some rights should doubtless be held by individuals; others, by associations; still others, by communities. Decisions about the nature of different rights regimes will vary in each fishery and with each geographic location and should reflect the people involved and the natural resource in question. In some cases, individuals may have exclusive rights to utilize specific resources but may be unable to influence the behaviour of other rights holders, except with their willing consent. Such individuals may, however, be vested with rights protecting them from injury caused by others’ use of the resource. Remedies may be available through the courts or other third-party arrangements.[233]

Alternatively, rights holders may form collective organizations endowed with regulatory authority. This community of users could make collective choices, without the willing consent of each party, that establish limits on individual use.[234] A number of variables would contribute to the success of such collective organizations. Among these are a common understanding of the management problem, a common understanding of the alternatives for cooperation, a common perception of mutual trust and reciprocity, and a shared perception that decision-making costs are less than the benefits from joint action.”[235] The greater the resource users’ control and the stronger their rights, the more likely are these variables to ensure a workable cooperative regime.

Self-governing associations of rights holders could rely on the “users’ eyes” to enforce rules. Rights holders could also decide to rely on external institutions for enforcement, especially if  they were unable to resolve conflicts on their own.[236] As for conflicts between different owners or groups of owners, they would be settled by third parties such as courts of law, bureaucratic hearing officers, traditional local chiefs in areas with tribal histories, or other conflict resolution mechanisms.[237]

Under a strong property rights regime, governments would be required to play a new and important role—one that did not usurp the decision-making authority of resource owners but endowed them with it, and one that did not extinguish customary law with regulations but upheld it. Governments could legislatively establish resource owners’ rights to engage in local collective choice.[238] Given the size of Lake Ontario and the interdependence of its fish populations, a nesting of self-governing rights holders within a larger system for dealing with problems occurring beyond their boundaries might be required.[239] Redesigned government agencies could coordinate the efforts of various resource owners so as to further lakewide objectives. In some cases, it might be necessary for them to issue overarching parameters that resource owners would have to meet using methods of their own choice. Government agencies could also provide essential inputs, such as scientific information, to the decisions made by the resource owners.[240]

Strong property rights, individual or communal, would create powerful incentives for rights holders to reduce fishing pressures and to protect habitat. They would, of course, not solve all of Lake Ontario’s problems immediately. As discussed in Part One, Lake Ontario’s fisheries face significant problems. These include the inadequate reproduction of many native predatory fish; the imbalance in aquatic communities resulting from population explosions of invading species; the alteration or destruction of fish communities through stocking and overfishing; the contamination of fish and its adverse effects on the health of fish, fish-eating wildlife, and humans; and the degradation and destruction of tributary and nearshore habitat through wetland filling, marina construction, shipping channel construction and maintenance, and bank alteration.[241]

Each problem requires a unique solution. Some solutions must be local; others require coordinated actions across the entire basin. Some will result from individual actions; others from government regulations. Bromley once said that “Common property regimes exist and function very much like private property regimes and state property regimes. Some are not working very well, while others work very well indeed.”[242] Our challenge is to identify the conditions in which each regime best protects Lake Ontario and its fisheries and to create the institutional arrangements that promote the variety of solutions demanded. Only then will we obtain outcomes other than remorseless tragedies.

Appendix A: Origins and Potential Health Effects of Toxins Found in Lake Ontario




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