Fish Tales fascinating look at St. Lawrence waterway

MORRISBURG – “The St. Lawrence is the largest freshwater system on our planet. Twenty per cent of all the earth’s fresh water is right here. Our lakes are very new compared to those in the rest of the world, with the first fish moving here from South America about 20,000 years ago. We are spoiled by all this fresh water: 5,000,000 people actually get their drinking water from the St. Lawrence.”

Matt Windle, a fish researcher with the St. Lawrence River Institute, addressed a group of fishermen, boaters and other people interested in the health of the St. Lawrence at a special presentation held at the McIntosh Inn and Conference Centre on Wednesday, July 26.

Windle’s address was a celebration of the great diversity of fish and aquatic life in the mighty St. Lawrence. It was also a strong warning of dangers that threaten the health and future of the river and its linking Great Lakes.

Windle is with the St. Lawrence River Institute, a completely independent organization, not a government agency. Researchers with the Institute examine water quality, and study contaminants, biodiversity, fish health, invasive species and species at risk.

The Institute also runs outreach programs in river communities, involves over 6,000 students in its programs and holds an international River Symposium every year.

As Windle pointed out in his address, prior to the arrival of Europeans Indigenous Peoples relied for food on the some 70-80 species of fish, which were native to the river and Great Lakes. In past centuries, Niagara Falls and rapids, such as those found in places like Long Sault, served as effective natural barriers against any invasive species, effectively keeping native fish populations healthy and abundant.

Major changes to the river ecosystem essentially began after North America was settled by Europeans. Harnessing the falls, and controlling the rapids signalled changes in the river.

But the most radical transformation to the ecosystem came with the creation of the Seaway in the late 1950s.

“The river became bigger and warmer and new flood plains were created,” said Windle. “From that came over-fishing, the modification of natural shore lines, pollution (although it is better than it was) and the introduction of new and invasive species.”

Windle referred to this part of his presentation, as a bit of “doom and gloom.”

He described how seagoing vessels indiscriminately scooped up ballast in Europe and Asia, then dumped that water (often carrying alien fish, parasites and microbes) into the St. Lawrence.

Lamprey eels were introduced into the St. Lawrence in the 1930s, and literally decimated the trout population of the Great Lakes.

Round Gobies now cover the bottom of the river, and in fact, may make up as much as 20 per cent of the fish caught by anglers.

One of the most serious threats to the St. Lawrence system was introduced into North America from Eurasia. This fish species has already, in fact, almost destroyed the Mississippi watershed.

“The Asian carp leaps out of the water, has no natural predators and is a deadly hazard to boaters and swimmers,” said Windle. “One Grass Carp, weighing in at over 60 pounds, was discovered two years ago in the St. Lawrence.

In the States, a large electric barrier has been built on Lake Michigan to try and stop the Carp, and researchers are looking at a number of plans of attack. But the reality is that the Carp are on the doorstep of our Great Lakes.”

Problems with pollution and over-fishing have created what Windle calls shifting baselines.

“Native fish have been reduced in size, and what is considered ‘normal’ is changing.”

However, Windle pointed out, organizations like the St. Lawrence River Institute are fighting back.

The river is now constantly monitored. Over 40,000 fish were caught this year, as intensive data files are built. Research and rehabilitation, even the use of radio transmitters, has allowed scientists to track the movements of fish species and to study their habitat and food supplies.

The Institute has also called on the services of a new group in the eco-fight, citizen scientists.

Recreational divers and sports fishermen have begun routinely providing the Institute with information, and often with videos up and down the river.

Drones have also become a valuable tool in the fight to protect the St. Lawrence. “This new technology allows us to track and survey fish populations from the air,” Windle said.

He stressed that everyone has a responsibility to protect and preserve the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. This is why education of the next generation is a key mandate with the Institute.

At the end of his address, Windle responded to questions from the floor ranging from the destructive nature of Cormorants to whether Gobys are here to stay. (“I’m afraid so. But they actually feed on zebra mussels, so there is some pay off.”)

He was asked how the record rainfalls of 2017 may have affected the river.

“This year, with its record water levels, is going to be something of an experiment for all of us. But the flooding may have actually helped, creating an improvement in fish habitats. And so,” Windle added, “this may turn out to be a terrific year for fishing.”