Community hatcheries keep Ontario stocked

by Mike Beaudin | September 10, 2021
fingerling fish being released into a waterway

On a late fall morning, a dozen or so volunteers gather on a wooded hill with a magnificent view of Georgian Bay. This group has no interest in the autumn splendour, however. Their job is to load thousands of fingerlings into a tank mounted on the back of a truck before releasing them into the nearby bay.

The individuals form a bucket brigade and start moving fingerlings from holding tanks housed in the wooden building that is the Georgian Bay Fish Hatchery. The work is backbreaking, especially for some of the older members, but it’s obvious that this is a labour of love.

Since local anglers started the fishery about 40 years ago, it has grown from a tent to a large building that houses six to eight tanks, the temporary home for thousands of rainbow, brook, and brown trout that are eventually released into nearby lakes and rivers to be caught by anglers.

“I’m in it for the pleasure of seeing those fish in there going back into the streams and lakes for other people,” said Al Gibson, a retired radio executive who combines his passion of fly fishing with his volunteer job at the hatchery. “I fly fish for smaller brooks and rainbows in streams around the Beaver River – catch and release. It gives me a great deal of pleasure and you learn a lot about how the fish react.

The way they react in the wild is the same reaction in the hatchery. It’s a learning process. The trout love to sit under intakes in the tank where all the bubbles are and when they go out into the rivers, they’re in the ripples, in the same place. You learn where these fish are going to be because you are around them all the time.

Crews dedicated

The volunteer hatchery is operated by the Georgian Bay Triangle Anglers Association. Its 60 or so members include a group of seven who tend to the hatchery chores every day of the year. That includes those wintry mornings when blinding snowsqualls force crewmembers to dig out their snowshoes. They are one of the more than 40 similar volunteer-run community hatcheries across the province that play a significant role in keeping Ontario’s lakes and rivers stocked.

Under the umbrella of the Community Hatchery Program (CHP), they have worked with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) since the CHP was established in 2013. The development of the CHP increased provincial funds for community hatcheries from the previous support through the Community Fish and Wildlife Involvement Program (CFWIP). This partnership is key to growing and maintaining the province’s sport fisheries through stocking, conservation, and management. Together, the CHP, CHP-supported community fish hatcheries, and the MNRF’s nine fish-culture stations stock more than 12 million fish into 1,200 Ontario water bodies annually, and another 2,000 lakes and rivers on a rotational basis every four years.

Demand growing

Stocking is a way to meet the needs of a sport that is growing in popularity.

“This is based on the expectation that continued human population growth and related development will place even more pressures on our fisheries resources and their ability to satisfy the demand for fishing opportunities,” an MNRF report states.

Indeed, the demand is there and increasing. In Ontario, sport fishing fills cash registers. More than 1.2 million recreational anglers in Ontario spend more than $2 billion every year, buying boats, tow vehicles, fishing gear, and going on fishing trips. A well-stocked fishery created jobs, generates taxes, and keeps voters happy.

Attempts at restoring depleted fisheries through stocking have been around since 1866 when Samuel Wilmot built the first Ontario fish hatchery on Wilmot Creek in a failed attempt to reverse the decline of Atlantic salmon in Lake Ontario. Early attempts failed because fish habitat was destroyed. In 1976, the Ontario government took a more comprehensive approach to sport fishing. It introduced fishing licences, commercial catch quotas, established fisheries assessment units, and more scientific stocking.

hatchery tubs organized by fish

“Today, fish stocking is used in combination with harvest control, habitat protection, research and assessment, enforcement and invasive species control to manage Ontario’s fisheries resources,” an MNRF report says. “MNRF’s Fish Culture Program incorporates modern science and technology into the design and operation of its facilities.”

Most fish production has moved indoors to make it more efficient and to protect fish from predators, like a stray mink that invaded the Georgian Bay hatchery. Automated feeding systems, biosecurity measures, and state-of-the-art water conditioning systems ensure optimum conditions at the MNRF stations. Fish at all stages of development are released into rivers and lakes using specially equipped trucks, boats, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, and even helicopters.

Taking the pressure off

Fisheries Management Zone advisory councils have also been set up around the province to help determine what lakes and rivers to stock. About half the fish are released into inland lakes and the other half into the Great Lakes. Stocks are split evenly; half for restoration purposes and half for sport fishing, called the Put, Grow, and Take program. The MNRF is also stocking lakes and rivers close to urban areas. Diversionary stocking takes pressure off heavily-fished waters. In some places, they’re releasing mature fish in the hopes they’ll be quickly hooked.

“The Put, Grow, and Take program is taking some of the pressure off the naturally producing populations,” CHP Coordinator Matt Burley. “In that regard, I would say it’s a success. Those lakes are actively being sustained by stocking.”

“In many areas of the province, anglers won’t have to travel far to find a fishery that has benefited from community hatcheries,” said Burley. “I think many anglers would be surprised to learn of the collective and individual contributions that community hatchery volunteers make to the overall fisheries we enjoy.”

Program working

The MNRF says the stocking program is working. Five unique strains of lake trout are being restored in the Great Lakes. Lake trout and lake whitefish populations in Lake Simcoe now support significant recreational fisheries. Brook trout and lake trout populations in many acid-rain-stressed lakes in northeastern Ontario have been rehabilitated. Rainbow trout, brook trout, brown trout, and splake stocked in inland lakes and the Great Lakes are helping protect naturally reproducing fish stocks from overharvest. Walleye stocking efforts are showing good survival rates. Efforts to restore Atlantic salmon into Lake Ontario are underway, and the Put, Grow, and Take fish hatcheries are stocked in lakes near urban areas so local anglers can fish closer to home.

fishies in a net

Work not easy

Maintaining the community hatcheries is a labour of love. Tanks must be scrubbed and feeders need to be checked. Fish have to be loaded into tanks and released into nearby rivers and lakes several times a year. Eggs that don’t fertilize and dead fish have to be plucked by hand. The CHP, which recently signed a three-year agreement with the MNRF, provides provincial funding support to eligible community hatcheries. Each year, the CHP provides strategic and targeted support for community fish culture stations raising millions of fish for stocking into public waters. The CHP also helps community hatcheries with government requirements, support for fish-health testing, proper egg collection, rearing and stocking procedures, and funding.

At the Georgian Bay hatchery, the cycle begins in December when the first batch of brook trout eggs arrive from Sault Ste. Marie. The fingerlings are moved through a series of tanks as they grow through stages of development. In November, the latest batch of mature fingerlings is loaded into a portable tank perched on the back of a trailer that’s towed to local rivers and streams where the fish are released.

“This is a love put forth not just for increased fishing today, but for our children, our grandchildren, and for the future,” said Rick Baldry, president of the Georgian Bay club and a bait and tackle store operator in nearby Collingwood. “It’s to keep them coming back. Our mission statement is to improve the fishery.”

Finding volunteers challenging

Most of the volunteers at the community hatcheries have been there for years and many are ready to pass the job onto the next generation. The challenge, however, is to find more volunteers to take their place.

“Each year, more than 1,000 volunteers donate nearly 95,000 hours of their time at community fish hatcheries. This is a truly remarkable statistic,” said Burley. “We want to make sure the fishing community does not take these incredible volunteers or the fishing opportunities they provide for granted.”

Measuring the success of the program is difficult. The MNRF studies fish population status and tries to measure the success of anglers, although information is not always available for each lake that is stocked.

Gibson uses a different approach. “We like to say if you pull a brown out of the lake here, it’s probably one of ours because we’ve put enough in there.”

The most popular fish requested for stocking by anglers is walleye. Other species include Atlantic salmon, aurora trout, brook trout, brown trout, chinook salmon, lake trout, splake, whitefish, bloater, and muskellunge. Community hatcheries raise Atlantic salmon, brook trout, brown trout, chinook and Coho salmon, lake trout, muskellunge, rainbow trout, and walleye to be stocked in public waters in Ontario. Fish are stocked at different developmental life stages depending on the species and stocking objectives.

Find stocked lakes near you

The MNRF is helping anglers find information on stocked lakes through its Fish On-Line (www.ontario.ca/fishonline) tool. Launched in 2011, the site features an easy-to-access map that outlines a complete picture of rivers and lakes across the province that have been stocked.

It shows the fish species in various lakes, characteristics of lakes, such as average depth, and spells out all regulations and exceptions for each lake.

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