By Brian Christie, Lake Superior Conservancy and Watershed Council
In mid-July, 2006 the call went out from a consortium of conservation advocates, including;Trout Unlimited in Canada and the U.S., Nature Conservancy of Canada and the Nipigon Bay RAP Public Advisory Committee for help to protect spawning habitat of the once abundant and legendary, now scant coaster brook trout on the Nipigon River. The Nipigon is thought to be one of the last strongholds for brook trout on the north shore of Lake Superior, if not for the lake as a whole. Where previous protection initiatives were focused on mitigating the impact of hydro dam development within the river corridor, this time the focus was on lands adjacent to and critical for the sustaining of scarce spawning areas.
So what brought this once abundant brook trout population to its knees? Researchers suggest that the combination of its’ past abundance and availability and being attractive to anglers for its larger size and beauty led to vast over over-fishing. The cumulative destruction of primary habitat by logging and mining activity over the past century significantly contributed to its decline. In recent decades the introduction of competition in the form of other salmanoid species such as brown trout, Pacific salmon, and steelhead has put additional pressure on this indigenous species.
Lake Superior coasters have taken on a certain mystic. They are recognized as a natural legacy and “link to the past.” Once romanced by avid fishers for their vast abundance in the late 1800’s, now the challenge is to protect and revive the “coaster.” Over the past decade or so a multitude of government agencies, ENGOs and learning institutions have taken up the challenge of learning what it will require to restore this heritage fish.
At one time perhaps 120 or so tributaries around the Lake Superior basin supported a resident population of brook trout from which the coaster brook trout are derived. Today on the south shore of Lake Superior only three viable populations of “coasters” are known to reside, two in the vicinity of Isle Royale and one in the Salmon-Trout River. Remnant populations have also been located along the northwest shore. The most prodigious colonies however, reside on the north shore in Nipigon Bay with critical spawning habitat in its main tributary the Nipigon River.
While researchers are now collaborating to learn more about the relatively unknown ecology of the “coaster,” and fisheries authorities have put in place regulations such as seasons, catch size and limits to protect a fragile population, recognizing and assessing remaining habitat presents a challenge.
What we do know is that the coasters typically spend part of their life in the big lake, and migrate back to tributary streams, estuaries or near-shore locations in the late summer and early fall to spawn. Coasters seek out sheltered, well-oxygenated, cooler waters with spawning habitat compromised of loose, silt-free gravel or coarse sand over an area of percolating groundwater. This describes to a tee Gapen’s Pool, one of only three known spawning areas on the lower Nipigon River.
While great strides have been made to define the significance of the coaster brook trout and address concerns through water management planning on the river, protecting land areas critical to preserving spawning habitat is imperative to the long term sustainability of this species.
“The coaster brook trout have very specific needs and require sites with substantial underwater springs for successful reproduction, says Nuttall.” “The land adjacent to Gapen’s Pool serves a critical hydrological function filtering, collecting, storing and percolating groundwater into these seepage areas beneath the river,” adds Nuttall. Previous research by Dr. R. Allen Curry of the Canadian Rivers Institute confirmed the direct link between reproductive habitat and groundwater. Adjacent landscapes control the pathways and flow rates of groundwater to the river at these critical habitat locations.
Currently the land above Gapen’s Pool is being considered for commercial development due to its desirable location at the junction of Northerwestern Ontario’s two major highways. Development will result in compacted soil, paving, and point and non-point source drainage issues, all posing serious threats to groundwater function, quality and quantity at the site. “Unfortunately, it is not enough to protect the spawning beds alone. It is also imperative to protect the lands and critical functions adjacent to these beds,” said Doug Cressman, CEO of Trout Unlimited Canada in a letter to the then Minister of the Environment for Canada, Stephane Dion.
As we speak, the consortium is raising funds to purchase the property above Gapen’s Pool. If successful, the intention is to donate the property to Parks Canada for management as part of the proposed Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area, the largest freshwater marine conservation area in the world.
For more information about the Gapen’s Pool Proposal visit the Trout Unlimited Canada website at: www. tucanada.org. or contact Dave Nuttall at email@example.com. To learn more about the newly formed Lake Superior Conservancy and Watershed Council visit www.lscwc.org or E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.