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Ontario’s Fisheries: Significant Contributors to the Ontario Economy

Ontario’s fisheries contribute substantially to Ontario’s economy, with recreational and commercial fishing valued at more than $2.5 billion annually:

  • 41,000 person years of employment.
  • More than 1.2 million residents and non-resident anglers, contributing $2.2 billion annually to the Ontario economy.
  • A driving force for Ontario’s tourism industry and a key economic component in many communities, particularly in Northern Ontario, with 1600 licensed tourist operators generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues annually.
  • More than 500 active commercial fishing licences, contributing more than $230 million dollars to the Ontario economy.
  • 1200 commercial bait fishing licences are issued annually, with $17 million in direct sales of live bait.

Fisheries Resources Today

Ontario has a large and diverse aquatic resource with over 250,000 lakes and countless kilometers of rivers. The province’s inland and Great Lakes fish communities support the largest freshwater fisheries in the world, and provide for a variety of subsistence, recreational and commercial fisheries. Together, these activities and their supporting industries are estimated to contribute more than $2.5 billion annually to Ontario’s economy.

Ontario’s fisheries continue to prosper, but over the years, aquatic invasive species, overfishing, habitat degradation, nutrient loading, and other stresses have impacted the ecology and fish communities of the Great Lakes and the province’s inland lakes and streams. Despite a number of successes in rehabilitating and recovering fish populations and sustaining fisheries, there is considerable variation in the status of the fish resource across Ontario.

Ontario’s climate is also changing, adding stress and uncertainty about the future of native fish species and the ecosystems that support them. At the same time, the province’s population is growing, and pressures on commercial, recreational and Aboriginal subsistence fisheries are shifting.

State of Ontario’s Fisheries Resources

The 250,000 lakes and countless kilometers of streams in Ontario provide a wide range of aquatic ecosystems and habitats that support a diversity of freshwater fishes; Ontario has the highest fish diversity in Canada, with 128 species native to the province and 17 naturalized species. These self-sustaining wild fish stocks provide for a diverse range of year round aboriginal, commercial and recreational fisheries in urban, rural and remote areas of Ontario. Where fishing opportunities are limited, additional fisheries are created through stocking hatchery raised fish. Fisheries contribute over 2.5 billion dollars to Ontario’s economy annually (see text box, previous page) while providing wholesome food, and social and cultural benefits.

Great Lakes

The Great Lakes support the largest recreational and commercial fisheries in Ontario. Lake Erie has the largest freshwater commercial fishery in the world, with about 75% of the Great Lakes total of 12 million kg of fish landed in 2011. The Ontario portion of the Great Lakes and its tributaries supported 4.5 million angler days of recreational fishing in 2010. There are over 30 First Nations communities on the Great Lakes; they have a long tradition of fishing.
The deep offshore areas of the Great Lakes were once dominated by two main predators, Lake Trout and Burbot, as well as by Lake Whitefish and ciscoes. Those offshore fish communities have experienced drastic changes since European settlement, and many native trout, whitefish and cisco stocks have been lost. Control of Sea Lamprey and water quality improvements in the 1970s and 1980s, combined with successful salmonid stocking programs enabled the growth of the current large salmonid recreational fishery. Naturalized species such as Rainbow Trout, and hatchery-supported populations of Chinook and Coho Salmon dominate open water recreational fisheries, especially in Lake Ontario. Lake Superior is still dominated by Lake Trout, Burbot and ciscoes, and rehabilitation efforts have helped Lake Trout reclaim a position of dominance in Lake Huron.

Coastal wetlands and nearshore, warmwater embayments support abundant fish communities composed of bass, Walleye, Yellow Perch, Muskellunge and Northern Pike. Walleye is the most dominant predator in Lake Erie and supports both recreational and commercial fisheries. Rehabilitation of habitat and improved water quality along Toronto’s waterfront has resulted in the recovery of fish populations such as Walleye, bass and Northern Pike with sport fish now safe to eat. This provides the people of Toronto with recreational fishing opportunities and their social and economic benefits without having to leave the city.

Aquatic Invasive Species

Aquatic invasive species are a significant and growing concern for our fisheries. They include invasive fish species such as Round Goby that out-compete native species for food and habitat, parasitic species like Sea Lamprey, and invasive fish disease organisms such as Koi Herpesvirus (KHV). They can also include invertebrate species that cause ecosystem changes, such as zebra and quagga mussels, which alter nutrient concentrations in water, filter out large amounts of phytoplankton, and increase the amount of sunlight penetrating the water column. This changes the growing conditions for aquatic plants and forces light sensitive fish, like Walleye, to seek other habitat. Invasive aquatic plants like Eurasian water milfoil and water soldier can also alter habitat for native species.

Inland Waters

Populations of warm water species and most cool water species are generally stable across the Province. Walleye is the most sought after species by recreational anglers in Ontario, and is also an important target species for some commercial fisheries. Walleye abundance is relatively high in most of northern Ontario, where it supports a large resource-based tourism industry; in southern Ontario, lower abundance is probably a result of the combined effects of higher exploitation, species invasions and reduced nutrient inputs from improved land use practices.

Smallmouth Bass are one of the most popular recreational sport fish species in Ontario. Although native in much of southern Ontario, their range has expanded through introductions and migrations into both central and northern Ontario lakes and rivers. Smallmouth Bass fisheries are managed to provide social and economic benefits to Ontarians where appropriate, but efforts are being made to prevent new introductions, especially in areas where potential negative interactions with Lake Trout and Brook Trout could occur.

Cold water species are still widespread across their Ontario ranges but some populations of Lake Trout and Brook Trout are extirpated, and others have suffered local population declines. Excessive exploitation has undeniably played a key role in this, but human-caused changes in habitat and aquatic invasive species have also had detrimental effects. Efforts to restore self-sustaining populations of Lake Trout are underway in a number of areas and are showing varying degrees of success. Lake Trout and Brook Trout populations in sparsely populated northwestern Ontario are currently the least impacted by exploitation and other stresses; however these populations could experience the greatest impacts of climate change.

Aquatic Species at Risk

The number of aquatic species at risk is growing – a result of habitat destruction or alteration, species introductions, diseases of parasitism, narrowly-restricted ranges, and a variety of other natural and human-caused stressors. Ontario’s Species at Risk list includes 27 fish and 13 mussel species, most occurring in the Great Lakes and their tributaries. Four fish species, Gravel Chub and Paddlefish (extirpated); Deepwater Cisco and Lake Ontario Atlantic Salmon (population-extinct, species-extirpated); and one sub-species, Lake Erie Blue Pike (extinct) are no longer found in Ontario. Six other fish species are classified as endangered, ten as threatened, and nine as special concern. Recovery planning for species at risk is occurring, and efforts to restore Atlantic Salmon (see text box on page 36) and Deepwater Cisco in Lake Ontario are under way, with encouraging early results.

In Summary…

Although invasive species, historical overfishing, habitat degradation, nutrient loading, and other stresses have had varying degrees of impact on the ecology and fish communities of the Great Lakes and the province’s inland lakes, rivers and streams, Ontario still offers a diverse array of fishing opportunities; all freshwater fishes that support fisheries are secure from a conservation perspective; and most fish populations are thriving.

Source:  Ontario’s Provincial Fish Strategy:  Fish for the Future – pp3-5