If we are to conserve the walleye fishery and protect our ecosystem, the Trent Severn Waterway (TSW) should adopt a forward-thinking approach that simulates how water naturally flows. In the 1960s, fishing tourism brought anglers from as far away as the United States. Rods were hopping, lodges overflowed, and towns like Lindsay and Bobcaygeon thrived on tourist dollars. But in the last 50 years, walleye have disappeared and so has fishing tourism. Over the last 30 years, there’s been an 80% drop in hours spent locally enjoying one of Canada’s favourite pastimes. Walleye fishing pressure on Pigeon Lake dropped from 175 000 hours in 1981 to 34 000 hours by 2013. Why? There are no walleye to catch. Exploding bluegill numbers, winter walleye poaching, lack of enforcement, and degraded spawning beds have all contributed to the problem. But the biggest harm to the walleye fishery by far has been the water itself. The health of the fishery and the environment is tied to lake levels and to how water flows. Water hasn’t moved in a fish-friendly way for decades. To make matters worse, the fall draw-down has dropped lake levels to environmentally destructive winter lows. Fish can’t survive without water. Hydraulic dams have hurt our ecosystem for 50 years, contributing to tragic walleye decline. The most important, prime historic, spawning beds in the Kawartha Lakes exist below the Lindsay and Bobcaygeon dams. These beds have been out of the water during April/May spawning season in recent years and when water is provided, it’s not the right type of water. Walleye need slow-moving, high-oxygen water to spawn, the kind provided when topwater tumbles over log dams. But that’s not the kind of water our walleye get. In the 1960s, ecologically-destructive hydraulic dams were installed along the Trent-Severn system, without a single study to predict what kind of harm they would do to the environment. Fifty years later, we’re seeing the fallout. These bottom-opening dams don’t release water in a natural way. Nature sends water downstream across the entire river, from the top. Hydraulic dams send water from the lake bottom, down only a small portion of the river, at a high-velocity too fast for walleye to navigate. Stop-log dams supported a healthy fishery for 130 years, and they could fix the damage that’s been done if the Trent-Severn Waterway would use them again. But the fish-friendly stop-log dams remain lock-tight. The Save the Walleye committee has been working to get this changed for five years unsuccessfully. Kawartha Conservation sees the potential benefits and has asked the TSW to permit a study that measures how much impact this change could have, not only on the fishery but on overall ecosystem health. The Trent-Severn Waterway has not responded. Sturgeon Lake needs this study. It has the worst water quality (phosphorus) and the least amount of natural shoreline, compared to every other lake in the Kawarthas, far below the recommended guidelines needed to maintain a resilient ecosystem and viable wildlife population. Marshes are filling in and toxic algae blooms and e-Coli incidents are growing. Other species, like white sucker, shiner minnows, frogs, snails, turtles, shad flies, mayflies, and caddisflies have declined too. Caddisflies are sensitive to water pollution and are used as bio-indicators of ecosystem health. As caddisflies disappeared, so did swallows. April and May are crucial spawning months for the decimated Kawartha walleye fishery. Without water moving over the stop-log dams to counterbalance the hydraulic current, it will likely prove to be another unsuccessful spawning season. The fragile hatchlings will get pulled into the forceful hydraulic dam release and they won’t survive.
The solution is simple. It takes little effort, and it costs nothing: Use stop logs to release water. Want to help us bring back the walleye fishery? Right now, a study is being run by university researchers to gather public perspectives on the Trent-Severn Waterway. This study will identify opportunities to improve environmental conditions along the system. You can find the survey link on our Facebook page (fb.com/savethewalleye/) and on the website savethewalleye.ca, where you can read more about our goals, the work MP Jamie Schmale and MPP Laurie Scott have put into this important cause, studies that support a system-wide change to water management, and stories and photos shared by your neighbours who have seen the decades-long degradation from their docks. If you see rocks breaking the water at the spawning beds below the Lindsay or Bobcaygeon dams from mid-April to mid-May, or if you see water drop too far in winter, call the TSW at 705-750-4900. And if you see fishing violations at any time of the year, including fish kills from excessive drawdown, call the Peterborough Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry services (MNRF) office MNRF TIPS line at 1-877-847-7667 or use the online form at https://www.ontario.ca/feedback/contact-us.