By: Mark Mattson, President, Swim Drink Fish Canada
I started writing this blog the week before our crews headed out to Fletcher’s Creek and subsequently discovered a spill at the site of our Great Lakes Challenge restoration work. This spill with potentially devastating consequences for the redside dace, has only magnified the importance of our work on this project.
I intended to tell you how the restoration work of Ontario Streams funded by the Great Lakes Challenge is going to restore and expand this vulnerable habitat. I was also excited to tell you all about the outreach and education programs that would go along with that. While I still intend to cover that today I feel like given the current situation I should start with why this work is so necessary.
When I first heard about the redside dace I couldn’t believe that I’d gone my whole life without knowing about this unique minnow who lives in our backyard. I consider myself to have above average knowledge of fish, especially those living in the Great Lakes basin, how could I have missed that Ontario has its own flying fish, ok, ok leaping minnow?
The redside dace is a small cyprinid or minnow measuring only about 7.5 - 11cm. Their silvery body is adorned with a red, black and yellow stripe running about halfway along its sides. They have an elongated bottom jaw specially designed for catching their prey. This is the best part, the prey that makes up the vast majority of its diet is actually flying insects from outside the stream. It’s large eyes tell us that it is a visual hunter. It spots its prey above the water and then flies through the air to catch this prey in fantastic fashion.
As last week’s spill made all the more evident, the redside dace and its habitat are under threat. Why should we care about this little minnow you may ask. Well, as an indicator species the threats to the redside dace are also the threats to the health of our entire watershed.
Over 80% of the total redside dace population live right here in the Greater Toronto Area. It should come as no surprise that the number one threat to their survive is unsustainable and impractical urban development. As population density increases, the proximity to the streams and rivers that feed Lake Ontario and provide habitat for the redside dace decreases.
Redside dace need riparian vegetation - the native plants, grasses and bushes that line the shoreline of rivers and streams - as well as rocks and fallen woody debris. That type of shoreline has proved to be aesthetically unappealing to developers and is often destroyed. The natural meanders, riffles and pools this species prefer are often destroyed as rivers and streams are rerouted if not fully completely diverted underground.
As redside dace relies mostly on food sources outside of the water they require clear water to visually target their prey. Like many native species they also require cool water within the range of 16-24 degrees c. Unmitigated industrial, agricultural and residential run-off fills these streams and rivers with silt and particulate matter that negatively affects the turbidity - clarity of the water - clouding the water blocking the redside dace’s view of its prey. Furthermore, once this silt settles to the bottom of the stream it covers the stream bed making it impossible for the redside dace to successfully spawn. This is exactly what makes last week’s spill so concerning. Even if the dark black substance is found to be non-toxic it will still be devastating to redside dace populations in Fletcher’s Creek.
Last week’s spill in Fletcher’s Creek came from a storm drain owned by the City of Brampton. This should be an important reminder to every single one of us; those storm drains at the end of our driveway, that we walk by or bike over each and everyday, often flow directly into a body of water without any means of filtration or treatment. While the vast majority of us would find it absolutely disgusting to dump a mop bucket directly into the lake many don’t feel the same about doing so down a storm drain. But there is no difference between the two.
It may sound funny but during last week’s spill I was actually thankful for a few things. Firstly I was thankful that our crews happened to be there, not only to report but to document this spill. So many spills go unreported or ignored and I knew that with our passionate and informed crew and partners on site that was absolutely not going to be the case this time.
And lastly and more critically I was thankful to the redside dace. That’s right I was thankful for a minnow. Let me explain, the redside dace is an indicator of overall watershed health - the canary in the coal mine - they offer us an early warning when a vulnerable eco-system is under threat. This spring when the redside dace was uplisted under the Federal Endangered Species Act, protection of the fish and its habitat took a bold step forward. Because of that, this spill is currently on the radar of numerous ministries across four levels of government. This spill will not be ignored. Thanks to this little cyprinid with the big eyes and an underbite we are forced to take all necessary steps to protect our watershed.
And this is where I begin to feel hopeful, because I know there is hope.
Though you and I may have just heard of this charming little cyprinid the conservation community has been fighting the good fight for over a decade. And now we are proud to be joining that fight.
Through the generosity of The W. Garfield Weston Foundation we have partnered with Ontario Streams to help repair some of the damage to streams and rivers throughout the GTA. It is hard to explain the immensity of this project. It is our largest project by geographical area. It will include the planting of thousands of native shrubs and live stakes of vegetation, the regrading and maintenance of thousands of metres of shoreline including garbage clean-up, removal of fish barriers and fallen trees. Ontario Streams will also analyse stream health with a variety of measurements and data loggers.
I can’t say enough about the work of Ontario Streams. For over 20 years they have been diligently working to reclaiming and restore the rivers and streams in Ontario. They have been leaders in Natural Channel Design yet still find the time to do the important work of engagement and education with the public.
To save the redside dace Ontario Streams works with municipalities, private landowners and organizations like ours. On top of that they recruit and host volunteers from organizations and the private sector to involve the public in this critical work and educate them about the needs of our streams and rivers.
I am absolutely honoured to be able to work with Ontario Streams and learn from their approach to restoration and species recovery. It is our pleasure to help shine a brighter light on their important work.
Swim Drink Fish Canada is also hard at work to spread the word about the redside dace.
We have partnered with Kidoons Productions and hope to soon be able to share with you an educational cartoon for children about this charming cyrpinid. This cartoon and the other educational material that we will develop will find a home with another amazing partner, the Toronto Zoo. They have long provided some of the best Great Lakes focused curriculum and we are excited that our redside dace material will be part of that, circulated to over 10,000 students each year in Ontario.
Recently, our Swim Drink Fish team was part of another exciting redside dace development. This soon to be famous minnow will adorn the first of several murals in the new Bentway Park near Fort York in Toronto. Beyond being beautiful the mural will serve as a reminder of how the survival of the redside dace is connected to the health and survival of the watershed we share and rely on.
The survival of the redside dace is part of a swimmable, drinkable, fishable Great Lakes. Saving this charismatic cyprinid is the same as saving ourselves so we better get to it. Thanks to The W. Garfield Weston Foundation this critical restoration and public engagement work can take a huge step forward but we must all do our part to protect our vulnerable streams and rivers.