In bringing back the brooks, it’s an upstream effort

Swanson and Pietroniro get ready to release a brown trout back into the creek. VOICE PHOTO

Short Hills survey comes up empty, but project to restore fish continues

BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
The VOICE

Along a bank of Twelve Mile Creek in Short Hills Provincial Park last week, a dozen or so conservationists went fishing. The group, made up of Niagara College graduates, professors, volunteers from Trout Unlimited Canada, NPCA employees, and Niagara Restoration Council representatives, conducted a survey of the stream, hoping to find brook trout.

Using a hoop on the end of a pole, they delivered a series of gentle shocks to the water, enough to stun fish to the surface for easy retrieval. (If you’re having visions of Homer Simpson dropping a bug-zapper into Lake Springfield and frying all the fish, you’re not alone. Relax, though. These fish were unharmed.) The group caught nearly 50 different fish throughout the day, including a 35-centimetre brown trout and a freshwater eel several feet long. But there wasn’t a single brook trout in the bunch.

Twelve Mile Creek is the last waterway in Niagara able to sustain brook trout. Nearer to the creek’s headwaters at several groundwater springs in Effingham, GoPro cameras left on rocks caught images of brook trout in the stream. But the failure to find any in the survey shows that by the time the creek reaches Short Hills, several kilometres later, the trout are gone.

Ian Smith, of Niagara College’s Environmental Studies faculty, had a succinct explanation for the fish’s disappearance: temperature.

“Brook trout are cold-water fish,” he said. “As soon as the water gets to 20 degrees, they begin to become sluggish. After three days of 22-degree heat, they’ll die.”

The water that starts the creek in Effingham comes straight from the ground, and its coolness allows the trout to spawn and thrive. The stream gradually becomes warmer, however, and the trout either don’t survive or turn back to stay in the cooler part.

Two of Smith’s former students, Jordan Pietroniro and Kyle Swanson, described several ways by which this warming occurs. Primarily it is a result of agricultural activity. Nitrates from fertilizers leach into the water, contaminating its quality. At its headwaters in Effingham, the creek is almost entirely shaded by large trees, but as it passes by plowed fields this cover disappears. The absence of trees means the absence of deep roots that solidify the creek’s banks. Without this support, the banks collapse, allowing the stream to widen. This widening makes the waterway shallower, and results in greater surface area for the sun to strike, warming the water even more.

What’s more, brook trout typically spawn in gravelly areas, while the team has observed “truly monumental amounts” of sandy sediment that has accumulated at various points in the creek over the past couple years. This accumulation is quite possibly a result of two “major road bed failures” along Sulphur Springs, failures that have allowed large amounts of sediment to enter the waterway.

The temperatures last week were just within the brook trout’s upper bound, though this was likely only a result of recent rains and cooler days. Earlier in the summer, the water temperature peaked above 20 degrees, and Swanson suspects that the brooks travelled back upstream during that period.

“That’s the problem (and beauty) of natural systems—you have to put all the pieces together to see the big picture,” he said.

The big picture now inevitably involves the East Fonthill development. Included in its plan is a system for water management, most visibly evident in the large pond at the corner of Rice Road and Highway 20. Swanson said that, “our concern is the contribution of excess water into the watershed,” adding that it was probable that the water would also be relatively warm.

For his part, Mayor Augustyn has written that the development’s storm ponds will collect water and, “store, clean and cool the water and release it at a rate no greater than “predevelopment flows,” and that it will likely be some time until the East Fonthill’s true impact upon the creek is known.

But human activity isn’t entirely to blame. While trees that line the creek outside of the park have been cut down, inside the park they are being eaten.

“Deer are severely overpopulated here, and they eat everything trying to grow along the banks,” said Pietroniro, explaining that this only exacerbates the widening of the creek. A recent aerial count of the park showed that there are well over 300 deer living in the park, while its carrying capacity is between only 60 to 70.

The goal of the coalition, led by Swanson, is to make conditions in the stream conducive for brook trout to thrive. They have already begun the first phase of this plan, planting tree species unpalatable to deer along the creek’s banks on private land, and are presently seeking permits to construct stabilization structures in the stream.

Swanson said that these devices, called wing deflectors, lunkers, or live crib walls, “will help with erosion, diverting flow and actually dig out the bottom of the stream using the energy of the water, causing it to narrow, and deepen,” and hopes that they will be being built by next summer.

He is also sure to clarify Trout Unlimited’s intentions: the organization is so named because the species—and particularly brook trout—need cool, clean water, and their presence in a water system is indicative of overall environmental health. They are not trying to restore the population to be later fished.

“We are all citizens and professionals concerned for the conservation of Canada’s cold water resources,” Swanson said.

After studying environmental science at Wilfrid Laurier, Swanson finished a post-graduate certificate in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) at Niagara College. There, he teamed up with Pietroniro, who graduated from Guelph in biological sciences, on a thesis project in which the two measured temperatures and assessed the quality of several parts of Twelve Mile Creek’s headwaters. This experience led to his hiring by Trout Unlimited to work as a project technician for the summer. In May, the Niagara Chapter of Trout Unlimited received $250,000 in funding for this initiative, primarily from TD Friends of the Environment Fund and the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

Last Wednesday, a day after the work in Short Hills, the team completed another survey closer to the creek’s headwaters in Effingham. There, they found several brook trout, confirming the GoPro’s sighting of the fish.

Though Smith cautioned that the brooks were still relatively few and faced tough competition with the larger and more populous brown trout, he said that this is good news. In his long career as a fluvial geomorphologist, he has been involved in many projects—but this one is unique in its organizational diversity, and this gives him confidence.

“The brook trout are there, and, with careful work, we can extend their habitat back downstream to the park.”

 

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