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HomeNewsWhere Did All The Walleye Go? A Two Part Series

Where Did All The Walleye Go? A Two Part Series

Written by Larry Jones who is part of a group called Save The Walleye located in the Kawartha Lakes.

KAWARTHA LAKES-Larry Jones came to Bobcaygeon in 1955 as a young teenager. He worked for the Department of Lands and Forests at the Muskellunge Research Station on Nogie’s Creek. This position was a good fit to his real passion, which was taxidermy. This was something that caught his imagination as a 10-year-old. Larry soon established a reputation for his excellent work; not only the direct work with the animals, fish, and birds, but also for the complete montage which was worthy of any natural history museum. He has enjoyed a long career as a taxidermist in Bobcaygeon, during which time he won many awards for his extraordinary skill. Larry is also a keen fisherman with many tournament successes. He has lived close to nature for his entire life, and is a keen observer of the changes that have occurred as Bobcaygeon expanded. He has also been a member of numerous committees who have discussed these changes.

In the 1970s these changes started to have a serious impact on the local ecology. This was most severe on the fish stocks, the bird populations, and the overall health of the lake system known as the Trent-Severn. Larry formed a hypothesis based on the introduction of the new bottom discharge dams. That theory is the subject of this article. The death of the lakes has also been one of my major concerns since I came here in 1993. Therefore, I was delighted when Larry asked me to help organize his material into a publishable form. I have been his amanuensis. This has involved some research on the internet to find supporting material. That material has been reproduced here in italics. There seemed to be no point in rewriting this material because, in essence, it represents the widely held opinions of the scientific community. But, on the whole, I have worked with his material, and listened to him explain his theory in some detail. This is Larry’s story. Let us all listen carefully; and then take action.

How it used to be

In the beginning the water ran eastward from the high point of Balsam Lake to its outlet at Trenton, on the St. Lawrence. Another outlet from Balsam Lakes sent the water westwards to pour into Lake Simcoe. This waterway from the St. Lawrence to Lake Simcoe, and onward to the Great Lakes, was the highway for the indigenous people. It is the path they took with Champlain, and other early explorers, as the traders arrived from Europe. The water ran down through lakes, marshes, and rivers. It skittered over the numerous rapids, and plunged over the waterfalls. The water was packed with dissolved oxygen, which provided an ideal habitat for Lake Herring (Cisco), White Suckers, and other native fish.

In the spring the snow melt turned the waterway into raging torrents. This flushed out debris, and silt. The water bubbled furiously over the beds of small rocks that are vital breeding grounds for some fish. This was a happy time for the environment, and for all its creatures; including Man. The arrival of the ‘white man’ changed all that. A waterway that involves portages, and white-water rapids, is a challenge to moving trade goods, logs from the early lumber mills, and the household goods of the early settlers. Thus began the era of dam building.

These first dams had sluice gates to control the water flow. It was a simple device using logs. The top log determined the upstream water level. The logs could be lifted up to increase the flow rate, or lowered down to decrease the rate. It is significant, and, as we will see later, very significant that the water flowed over the top of the dam. River water does not flow at a uniform rate across its width, and depth. The water close to the banks, or close to the bottom, moves very slowly. The fastest water flows at the surface, mid-stream. The log dams did not stop this surface flow to any major degree. Oxygen enters water largely through the interaction of the air with a water surface. This effect is increased enormously in rapids, waterfalls, and during stormy conditions.]

The impact of civilization, the logging trade, and the dams, was certainly bad for the environment, especially the aquatic environment. However, it was not catastrophic. Lake herrings, and suckers, were still so numerous that they were caught in huge numbers, to be used as fertilizer on the new fields. However, these fish are not relished as human food. Between 1921 and 1940, walleye were introduced to the lakes, mainly because they are an excellent table fish. These fish have the same habitat requirements as white suckers; namely fast moving water, with a high oxygen content, flushing over the small rocks that make up an ideal spawning ground. The walleye thrived extremely well. Soon Pigeon Lake, and the other lakes along what was now the Trent-Severn waterway, were brimming with walleye.

During the spawning season the number of walleyes, and suckers, was so large that the smell of fish would drift into the towns. Bobcaygeon, and the other small towns along the waterway, became fishing meccas. Fishing lodge records show that almost half the guest were Americans. This was a boom time. Fishing guides were in great demand, tackle shops were prosperous, even taxidermists experienced a steady demand for their expertise.

Shad flies, or Mayflies, beloved of all manner of fish, rose in clouds so dense that it was difficult to see. It was noted that some cars could not brake properly because their tires would skid on the corpses of the flies. Here again it is very significant that the larval, and emergent stages of many insect, also need fast running, highly oxygenated water. It seems that Mother Nature looks after its creatures in a very rational way.

1970s: the walleye fishery starts to collapse

Few things change rapidly in a large watershed.

The life span of walleye is a decade or more. Even a serious change in the spawning habitat, with a consequent reduction in the juvenile survival rates, would take several years to become noticeable. However, a steady change did begin in the late 70s, and increased in subsequent years. This became noticeable to fishermen in the late 80s. The number of walleye decreased year by year. The American fishermen became increasingly frustrated by the size of their catches. The once flourishing tourist trade collapsed. Another change was also occurring, but went largely unnoticed.

The white suckers were also in decline at the same rate as the walleye. Local fishermen began to ask questions of the provincial government agencies, and of the Trent-Severn Waterways commission. The provincial authorities took a lukewarm interest at their usual glacial pace. And, in characteristic fashion, they set up commissions to look into the matter. The Ministry of Natural Resources was quick to blame overfishing. This was clearly not the case. White suckers are not a popular food fish. They may be caught from time to time, but they do not experience much fishing pressure; certainly nothing comparable to the walleye. However, the white suckers were also disappearing at the same rate as the walleye. It was noted earlier that walleye, and white suckers, occupy the same habitat. This should have alerted the Ministry to a possible habitat problem; but it did not.

When the fishermen tourists left, the expected bounce back in fish numbers did not occur. Since that time the regulations on catch limits, and slot sizes, have become draconian. In practice walleye is now a critically protected species. Even these stern measures have not produced any noticeable change. In recent years the only pleasure in fishing is being out on the lake, not in catching fish.

The next explanation centered on the arrival of Zebra mussels. These occurred long after the damage had been done.

Much has been made of the increase in weeds in the lake. They have become a serious problem for water sports of all kinds. This also decreases the appeal of the Kawarthas as a tourist destination. However, most weeds are beneficial to fish, but an overabundance certainly is not.

Over the years several serious biologists have looked into this problem. They are all looking for a cause, and effect, relationship. So far they have been unsuccessful. Larry Jones, a local taxidermist, outdoorsman, and ecologist, came to the inescapable conclusion that there must be a cause, and effect, relationship – but that the experts had missed the cause. Mr. Jones asked the key question. “What else was happening during the decline period?”

There were some topographical changes. Swamp areas were being drained. Cottage development was happening along miles of shoreline. There were more pleasure craft during the summer months. The nutrient-rich runoff from farmers’ fields, road surfaces, the sewage treatment plant, and cottages, was certainly encouraging aquatic weed growth, and the deterioration in water quality. But was this enough to explain the sharp decline in walleye numbers? He felt not. This was an opinion based upon his personal, and expert, knowledge of the walleye life cycle.

In Part Two tomorrow we will look at what Jones feels is to blame for the decline in the Walleye fishery. For more information on the Save The Walleye campaign click here: https://savethewalleye.ca



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