The Lost Edens of Lake Ontario

Written by Tristan Willis.
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Courtesy of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper

Published on by Tristan Willis.


A sketch by Elizabeth Simcoe of the Don River near York and John Scadding's Cabin, Autumn, 1793. (From the Archives of Ontario.)

Passenger pigeons once flocked in such astonishing numbers that they blocked out the sun as they passed. When they landed, branches could be heard breaking under the strain of their weight. Acres of acorn laden oaks would be picked clean in minutes; roosts sometimes extended for over thirty miles. Aldo Leopard referred to them as a “biological storm.”

By the late 1800s passenger pigeons had disappeared. In 1914, the last member of the species died, alone in a zoo.

No one living today witnessed these biological storm clouds that swept across the landscape. And for the most part, we don’t notice their absence, even if we’re aware of their previous abundance. There is a difference between what we know about the world and what we experience in it. Experience defines our reality and shapes our expectations. One result is that conceptions of what is ‘normal’ can change with each generation.

The first person to think seriously about this phenomena in an ecological context was the fisheries scientists Daniel Pauly. In 1995, Pauly published a paper titled “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries.” Pauly had noticed that fisheries scientists tended to dismiss anecdotal evidence of abundance that came from previous generations. He argued that “each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers and uses this to evaluate changes.” The results was “a gradual shift of the baselines, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species, and inappropriate reference points for evaluating economic losses results from overfishing, or for identifying targets for rehabilitation measures.”

The shifting baselines that Pauly observed aren’t confined to fisheries. The landscapes we grow up in, the technologies we are exposed to, or even the political culture of our youth can shape our conception of what is normal.* Remembering Lake Ontario’s history helps to illustrate how drastically cultural and ecological baselines can shift.

In his ecological history, “The Once and Future Great Lakes Country,” John Riley paints a vivid picture of the pre-colonial Great Lakes landscape. In the world Riley describes over twice as much water passed over the lip of Niagara Falls, which eroded back roughly a meter each year†. At the base of the falls was ‘a dreadful stench [that arose] from the quantity of putrid matter lying on the shore.’ This comes from the ‘great numbers’ of fishes, squirrels, foxes and various other animals... carried down.’ In fact, over a hundred fish were whisked over the falls each second. Below, the Niagara gorge was home to a sizeable population of timber rattlesnakes, some reaching over 5 feet in length.

Niagara Falls would have given a mere sampling of the natural abundance that the Great Lakes region once possessed. According to Riley the region was the ‘greatest freshwater fishery on earth.’ Lake Ontario was home to roughly 150 species of fish and was dominated by eel, trouts, ciscoes (salmonids) and sculpins. Millions of American eel would have migrated up and down the St. Lawrence each year. Near Toronto, salmon ‘were so plentiful… men slew them with clubs and pitchforks” and “women seined them with flannel petticoats” while “trout and whitefish were so numerous in Lake Ontario [that], all the way down to Cobourg, you could not put a net in the wrong place to catch fish.” Lake Ontario even had its own endemic population of harbour seal, which was extirpated in the early 1800s.

Near the end of the 18th century Elizabeth Simcoe, an accomplished sketcher and keen observer, explored the area around what would become Toronto.‡ She canoed the Don River, writing in her diary that she found ‘fine butternut’, bald eagles and ‘millions of the yellow and black swallow tails & heaps of their wings lying about’. She described the estuary of the Don as ‘covered with rushes, abounding with wild ducks & swamp black birds with red wings’. A young Naval Lieutenant gave a similar account of the area, describing ‘immense conveys of wild fowl... so abundant as in some measure to annoy us during the night.’

On the south shore of Lake Ontario, near St. Catharines, George Heriot described three local creeks that “ran in full streams of water out of the tree-shaded swamps, and in the spring… shoals of fish, pike, muscalonge (musky), suckers and others, almost choked the streams as they pressed up them to spawn. Later on…. the white fish came in endless shoals to the lake shores, and were caught in seines and eaten fresh or salted and smoked for use.”‡

These descriptions of aquatic abundant don’t reflect the Lake Ontario we know. Today the American eel and Atlantic salmon are largely absent, the diminished trout population must be sustained through stocking and a number of native species are extirpated or endangered. The Lake has lost over 50% of its coastal wetlands, large stretches of its shoreline have been been hardened and invasive species have severely altered its ecology. Industry and urban sprawl have also taken a chemical toll by releasing pharmaceuticals, pesticides, flame retardants, perfluorinated surfactants, plasticizers and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, phosphates and nitrates into the water. This situation may distress us, but for the most part, it doesn’t surprise us. As Pauly has observed ‘we transform the world, but we don’t remember it.’

Lake Ontario’s ecological history shows just how far our current baseline has shifted. What may seem normal today would have been unimaginable a century ago. But this isn’t the end of the story. Although our ecological baseline for the Lake has declined with each generation, our cultural connection with the Lake has undergone a more nuanced transformation. European colonists treated Lake Ontario as an inexhaustible resource with limitless reserves of fish and freshwater. This idea persevered as Ontario underwent industrial and urban expansion. But the collapse of the fishery, and contamination of the water forced an awareness of the Lake’s fragile, finite nature. Over the course of the 20th century the International Joint Commission was formed to help control water quality, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission was created to monitor fish stocks, environmental legislation was enacted, and a bi-national agreement was signed to try and keep mercury, PCBs and other toxins out of the Lake.

An understanding of the Lake’s limits and vulnerabilities brought with it an awareness of its ailments. For many people, especially those who didn’t spend much time around the Lake, it became associated with words like polluted, dirty or unhealthy. Today there are some people who are afraid to swim in the Lake, or fish from it, despite that fact that in many areas it is perfectly safe to do so.

Despite all the tribulations, Lake Ontario still has rich reserves of natural beauty. Revitalization projections along the Toronto waterfront and elsewhere speak to awareness of this, and a desire of many residents to reconnect with the sweetwater sea that’s just past their doorstep. Spending time by or on the Lake can remind you of its importance, and give you glimmers of the world that once was.

We may not be able to restore the Don River of Elizabeth Simcoe’s diary, but there is much we can change. The Atlantic Salmon is being reintroduced, the American eel can be saved. Keeping contaminates out of the Lake will allow water quality to slowly improve while restoring wetlands can help increase fish stocks.

Restoring Lake Ontario will allow the baseline to start shifting in  the right direction for younger generations. Having young people that swim, fish, canoe, kayak and otherwise experience the Lake will help them establish a baseline and a desire to protect it. Retaining a sense of the Lake’s history will remain important; setting targets that reflect the Lake’s potential will be easier if we recall its past grandeur. Yet as John Riley has lamented, “we rarely acknowledged it, seldom teach it, never mourn it.” Perhaps it’s time to start.


* It’s worth noting that shifting baseline syndrome can’t be dismissed just because it relies on a generalized conception of normalcy. Clearly, each person has their own view of what is ‘normal.’ But at a given point in time these myriad views presumably cluster around a hypothetical bell curve (this assumption is probably more true from an ecological perspective than a social one). The idea behind shifting baseline syndrome is that this bell curve moves over time. It doesn’t assume that everyone agrees on what is normal, or that nobody perceives past changes. It does assume that most people will define what is normal relative to the conditions of their youth, but there will always be variance. Afterall, in 1855 Thoreau was already lamenting the altered landscape that surrounded him. Writing from Walden Pond he admitted “I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed and, as it were, emasculated country.”
† Currently around 70% of the water destined for the falls is diverted to produce hydroelectric power. The flow rate is closely regulated and is increased during the summer tourist season (but lowered again at night, after the light show ends). The (comparatively) low volume of water passing over the falls has reduced the rate of erosion to less than a foot per year.
‡ Although I’ve focused on the pre-colonial aquatic ecology of Lake Ontario the surrounding terrestrial landscape would have been no less impressive. However, the forests were depleted faster than the lakes. By the early 1800s, when the aquatic ecosystems were still largely intact, wildlife populations were already reduced and logging was widespread. Early accounts from the late 1600s give a sense of the abundance pre-colonial the landscape, which was shaped by Native land management and agricultural practices. In 1694 a french officer, Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac, who was stationed in Detroit wrote that ‘stags and hinds (male and female elk)...  are seen in hundreds,’ common too were ‘rosebucks (deer), black bears, otters and other smaller fur-bearing animals’. Game was ‘very common… wild geese and all kinds of wild ducks, there are swans everywhere... [and] quails, woodcocks, pheasants, rabbits… There are so many turkeys that 20 or 30 could be killed at one shot. There are partridges, hazel-hens, and a stupendous number of turtle doves (probably mourning doves).” Cadillac also wrote of “birds of rare beauty… of a beautifully red fire color… I have seen others of a sky blue color with red breasts... A pleasant warbling proceeds from all these birds, especially from the red ones with large beaks.’
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