Bringing the ‘wild’ back into the city
Pet owners often treat a beloved dog or cat like a member of the family. In the same way, the wildlife that shares the green spaces, rivers and wetlands of the Greater Toronto Area should be treated as valued members of our community. Each species contributes to the structure and stability of the ecosystem that supports us all. And much like the canary in the coal mine, the loss of any sensitive species is a harbinger of the possible fate that awaits the rest of us.
You can’t separate the health of the environment, the viability of the species that live within it and our own well-being. We all share this earth and we all are connected in a myriad of ways. At TRCA, our restoration and monitoring staff work in the background to study, re-establish and improve the habitat of native species. As we better understand the often precarious state of the environment, we can plan accordingly for the future.
Habitat restoration is the foundation for increasing biodiversity
Our restoration team is especially proud of three major success stories in 2012: fish tracking along the lakeshore is guiding our waterfront rehabilitation work; coastal wetland restoration projects across the region are providing new homes for fish and wildlife, and the banding of migrating birds in Tommy Thompson Park is providing new insight on fluctuating bird populations. Nobody else is doing this kind of work at this level or scale. If someone wants to know about fish habitat or wetland restoration, they come to the Authority. TRCA’s dedication to habitat restoration and improvement reflects our overarching commitment to increasing biodiversity and bringing the ‘wild’ back into the city.
Fish research plumbs new depths
Twenty years ago, nobody wanted to talk about creating fish habitat – building reefs and shoals, strategically placing stone and gravel, anchoring woody debris, replanting aquatic vegetation, and naturalizing the shoreline. “Lake filling was not a popular concept back then, so when it came to our fish management plans, none of the other stakeholders wanted to work with us,” Gord MacPherson, senior manager, Restoration Services. “It took ten years of planning and negotiation to build consensus on what needed to happen.”
From 1993 through 2003, TRCA sat down with the federal, provincial and municipal authorities to determine exactly what needed to be done to maximize the ecological integrity of the Toronto waterfront. Out of these efforts, the Toronto Waterfront Aquatic Habitat Restoration Strategy was born. Among the strategic objectives, TRCA and its partners would identify the potential for self-sustaining aquatic communities in the open coast, sheltered embayments, coastal wetlands and estuaries, and then develop an implementation plan to restore aquatic habitats on the waterfront.
But you can’t optimize fish habitat, unless you fully understand the needs of your future tenants, so TRCA launched an acoustic telemetry fisheries study, together with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and scientists from Carleton University, to track both native and naturalized species throughout Toronto’s inner and outer harbour.
We’ve caught and returned more trophy fish to the waters of the TRCA than the average angler will see, never mind catch, catch in a lifetime. Every time we tie up back at the dock, visitors crowd around to see what we’ve got in the live well today.
By the end of 2012, researchers had collected 181 fish – including largemouth bass, northern pike, walleye, perch and common carp – and surgically inserted small transmitters that provide location, temperature and depth data. “We also set up an array of some 50 receivers, so wherever those fish swim, we can track them and grab the key environmental info,” says Gord MacPherson. The tracking data have provided detailed insight into the dynamics of freshwater fish – where they feed, where they spawn, where they overwinter – all of which identifies the habitat each species prefers and the areas they avoid.
“Over the course of one summer we tracked a largemouth bass from the Leslie Street Spit, through the Eastern Gap, up the mouth of the Don River and then across the inner harbour and west to Ontario Place, ” says Gord MacPherson, senior manager, Restoration Services. “Eventually, he was caught again by a TRCA electro-fishing crew in Bronte Harbour, Oakville, some 35 kilometres from where he started.”
The research also shows how successful our habitat restoration work has been in the embayments along Tommy Thompson Park (TTP), at the Rees and Simcoe slips, and in the pike spawning area of the Spadina wetlands. For example, we have been able identify that the northern pike – about 80 of them are now equipped with transmitters and are pinging their location 24/7 – like to hang out along the Spadina WaveDeck during the summer and around TTP in the winter months.
“This tracking data is validating our habitat restoration work. Today, the shorelines are alive and full of fish,” says Gord MacPherson. “We are not only re-establishing balanced, self-sustaining ecological communities, we are also changing the nature of our parks and lakeshore areas. Recreational fishing is really on the upswing. Making these areas more desirable to fish, makes them more attractive to the whole community.”
Rebuilding habitat one wetland at a time
It’s much harder to recreate a viable wetland – replicating drainage patterns and re-establishing the proper mix of aquatic and emergent vegetation – than it is to simply fill one in. But if done right, once the plantings root and fill out and the water starts to clear and fresh again, the native fish, birds and mammals, amphibians and insect life will return. Nothing increases local biodiversity more than a properly designed and engineered wetland.
In 2012, TRCA continued to restore coastal wetlands in TTP, as well as coastal marshes in the Duffins and Humber watersheds. The rebirth of the coastal wetlands is the climax of 40 years of intensive work.
You can judge the success of any habitat restoration project by the new residents you can attract. Once the Corner Marsh in Duffins Creek was restored back to the healthy condition it was in the 1960s, it quickly attracted an expanding population of muskrats, which are building dozens of lodges in the emergent vegetation and raising new families. Today, Corner Marsh has the largest population of muskrats along the northwest shoreline of Lake Ontario. In turn, they’ve attracted a family of river otters to the marsh.
The marsh also hosts multiple broods of wood ducks, gadwalls and blue winged teals. It’s a significant migratory stopover and feeding area for many fish-eating birds, like Caspian terns, great blue herons, belted kingfishers and egrets. And in 2012, three least bittern nests were located in the marsh. This secretive bird is a designated Species at Risk.
Based on the outstanding success of Corner Marsh, TRCA staff have detailed and developed restoration plans for the remaining three lagoons within the Duffins Marsh Complex and are currently lining up partners and funders for the project. It’s true what they say – if you build it, they will come.
Two major projects with a combined value of $3 million were also completed on behalf of the City of Toronto; Wilket Creek Park Phase 2 Emergency Works and Glen Stewart Ravine Management Plan Implementation Project. At Wilket Creek 300 m of channel reconstruction, including infrastructure protection the replacement of two bridges and the construction of a 40 m boardwalk to protect an ephemeral wetland were implemented, and at Glen Stewart Ravine, trail improvements for the protection of the ecologically significant habitat, and to improve user accessibility were completed through the installation of a 100 m boardwalk with a lookout platform, the replacement of a 27 m high staircase, and upgrades to the fencing and granular trail.
Creating the premier birding lab in Canada
If you follow the western fork of the path through Tommy Thompson Park (TTP) as it arcs out into Lake Ontario, you’ll soon happen across a modern, but unobtrusive, building nestled among the birch, willows and cottonwoods lining the great embayments. Established in 2003 and completely upgraded in 2012, the TTP Ecological Research Station has quietly developed into the premier birding field laboratory in the country. Located right in the heart of Canada’s largest urban centre, the primary mission of the Station is to aid conservation efforts at the local, national and international level through monitoring and research. It also hosts a variety of outdoor education and interpretive programs for both expert ornithologists and novice naturalists throughout the year.
The Ecological Research Station, as well as the new Staff Booth and Environmental Shelter, blend seamlessly into the urban wilderness of Tommy Thompson Park. Constructed of natural materials, they are designed to withstand the harsh elements with minimal maintenance. And at the end of their lives, the structures will be stripped back to their elemental concrete and steel skeletons and be left in-situ to be taken over by nature like the rest of the rubble fill that supports the park.
The core focus of the Station is its fall and spring migration monitoring programs. Over the years, TRCA staff and volunteers have documented more than 300 species of birds in the park, most of them seasonal visitors stopping over on their annual migrations. In the fall of 2012, some 4,629 birds of 183 species were netted, identified, measured and banded, adding to an invaluable record of the trends and shifts in bird populations over the last ten years. The information gathered is not only important from a strictly scientific perspective, it is also has tremendous practical application,” says Ralph Toninger, Manager of Restoration Projects. “The data collected and insight we gain on the urban ecology is used to design and build better parks and conservation areas throughout the region.”