Spawning Chinook salmon in Highland Creek draw curious crowd

TRCA-hosted walk teaches participants about fish and conservation efforts

Chinook salmon in Highland Creek?

That the Scarborough creek carries the fish normally found in the Pacific came as news to Gary Carmichael.

I had no idea that there were salmon in Highland Creek.

—Gary Carmichael

“I had no idea that there were salmon in Highland Creek so I was surprised to hear that,” the Scarborough resident said.

Carmichael was one of more than 100 who came out to the annual Salmon Run on Sept. 29 to see the spawning Chinook salmon.

The two-hour guided walk took place at Morningside Park and was sponsored by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA).

Christine Tu, senior aquatic expert at the TRCA and the day’s guide, showed the crowd where salmon spawn in the creek. She also explained the significance of the walk.

“It’s really to bring community residents down to their local parks,” Tu said, “and to learn about the ecology of the area, to learn about what they can do if they’re concerned about the quality of the river, to teach them a little bit about natural history, and teach them about the fish that come up through here.”

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources stocks the Chinook salmon in the creek. The TRCA raises them in hatcheries.

Once they’re in Highland Creek as young fish, they stay in the stream for less than a year heading out in Lake Ontario to finish their adult life cycle.

The fish that were seen at Highland Creek have returned from Lake Ontario to spawn. They will die immediately after spawning and are referred to as “terminal spawners”, Tu said.

“I loved it,” Scarborough resident Rebecca Carter said. “It was very educational.

“It was refreshing too. (It) was really nice to get up close and see the actual salmon swim and jump around in the water.”

According to the TRCA, the Highland Creek gets a grade of D, or poor, for overall surface water quality.

“Combined sewer overflow (goes into Highland Creek) causing the bacteria levels to increase in the water trenches over there,” Tu said.

The TRCA and the City of Toronto have a Green Strategy plan for the Highland Creek watershed. The strategy is being updated to show what the TRCA has done and outlines what else it wants to accomplish.

“We work quite closely with the City of Toronto,” Tu said. “We’ve probably done the most work below Highway 401 in terms of water quality.”

Salmon are very tolerant of urban conditions, including poor water quality, so Highland Creek does not have a big negative effect on them, Tu said.

“It’s urban water quality,” Tu said. “It’s not great and we do need to do better at preventing that contaminated water or storm water blowing directly into the creek.

“We have not seen a further loss of the tolerant species so that indicates that there is a level of stability in what we have right now.”