The Damsa Chronicles 2: In The Beginning


The Damsa Chronicles 2: In The Beginning

Anyone who has had the opportunity to fly northern Ontario cannot fail to be impressed with the vast numbers of lakes scattered below - and spreading out towards the horizons. They offer the promise of fishing opportunities galore in a province blessed with outstanding resources. There isn't one fisherman I know in these situations that hasnít contemplated what fish occupy unfamiliar water bodies below. As a surface water scientist with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, I knew better than most that many of the smaller lakes and ponds contained no sport fish. Some had minnows, some had suckers, and some were even stocked with brook trout by the government. But there were lakes and ponds, lots of them that likely had no sport fish. Bait fisherman used some of these lakes, but in areas of difficult access, the public largely ignored these small waters.

A typical pond/small Shield lake devoid of sport fish

The Damsa project seemed like a good idea at the time. The provincial government was looking for ideas to stimulate northern economies through the use of Crown lands. Thus CLADT (Crown Land as a Development Tool) was born and widely promoted, a joint program between the Ministries of Tourism and Natural Resources (OMNR) whereby business ventures involving Crown resources would be entertained. The potential is immense and the government of the day was not the only party to eye this potential. Every governing party has made public statements about the vast potential of the north and how there is much more here than logging interests and mining. Could some of this potential be tapped? Although the CLADT program was presented as a joint Tourism - OMNR effort, it is the Ministry of Natural Resources, which ultimately regulates/controls tourism development as it is this Ministry that is responsible for the disposition of Crown Resources, and this disposition process frequently is controversial. Sustainable development, the cornerstone of resources management, is not always an exact science.

As mentioned previously, as an aquatic scientist with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, I was aware of the vast number of small lakes in northern Ontario that had no sport fish but could possibly make good trout fisheries. In addition, the Ministry of Natural Resources policies (SPOF - Strategic Plan for Ontario Fisheries) were not particularly interested in additional stocking - but rather in the restoration and improvement of existing fisheries. My first wife had a degree in business from Lakehead University, and some experience fishing for brook trout in northern Ontario. Moreover, from living near New York City for several years, Lori knew of the appeal of fly angling trout for her associates. While I was at university in Connecticut, one of Loriís employers regularly flew to Labrador and Argentina every year to fish for trout, rain or shine and independent of family crises along the way. Never killed a fish. Was a fly fisherman only. Now this was the kind of angler we could be looking for: very high conservation ethics and a dedicated sportsman. Lori could readily see merits in a creating brook trout fisheries in some of these waters and marketing them to interested clients.

Trophy brook trout fishing in Ontario had been declining for decades, even for famed waters such as the Albany River. Why not create some new trophy fisheries? And why not try and make them bigger and better through some additional science. The aquaculture industry was creating monosex (all one sex) and sterile salmonid stocks for improved performance. Perhaps we could apply some of these techniques to brook trout - make that the Lake Nipigon strain brook trout, the strain with world record genes - and create some exceptional fisheries.

Thus the Damsa project was born with a business proposal based upon:

  1. Trophy brook trout - very highly valued by anglers.
  2. Trophy brook trout fisheries in decline in much of North America.
  3. Large potential client base believed available, particularly in USA.
  4. Many small lakes in Ontario believed to have potential to grow trophy brook trout.
  5. Many of these lakes receiving little or no public use - not containing sport fish - thus may be an under-utilized resource.

With these concepts in mind, the Damsa project was submitted to the provincial government in 1988 and accepted by the government in 1989. The company would develop the fisheries science and tourism studies to the satisfaction of the government led by OMNR. A steering committee was struck composed of Damsa and representatives from OMNR and other government agencies - principally Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. OMNR would direct Damsa through the Environmental Assessment process for approval of final Crown resource requirements.

Since the tourism business was to be developed on new technology, there was much work to be undertaken. Trout were to be neutered, so to speak, with the expectation of greater growth because energy that would normally be expended in reproduction processes would be redirected into growth. As discussed previously, there is field evidence to show that some of the largest trout and char grown in the wild have been sterile - although specific field studies involving sterile fish are lacking. Thus laboratory studies were initiated to develop fish for stocking. Brook (and rainbow) trout were sterilized in three different ways because the form of sterility may have consequences in the growth, survival and ultimate size of the fish.

Thus fish were sterilized:

Newly hatched trout like these can grow into trophies

  1. Gonadectomy: gonads (reproductive tissue) were removed.
  2. Triploidy: eggs heat shocked, results in sterile fish with three sets of chromosomes. The females do not participate in reproductive processes where as the males can and do. Thus triploid males if stocked can pose a threat to any indigenous brook trout stocks because although triploid milt is not fertile the triploid male will compete with fertile males for spawning females. Triploidy has been shown to occur in nature.
  3. Hormonal: eggs immersed in testosterone and fed treated feed. Resulted in 100% sterilization. Method published (Parks, L.M. and Parks, J.W. ,1991. Sterilization and feminization of brook trout (Salvalinus fontinalis) by androgen and estrogen treatment. Bull. Aquacul. Assoc. Can. 91-3:34-35)

Rainbow trout were included in these trials as these fish are much hardier than brook trout and will tolerate or even thrive in aquatic environments that are lethal to brook trout. There are a great number of waters in Ontario that have these aquatic conditions, likely many more than those that will support brook trout. Thus marginal habitat for brook trout may still provide good habitat for rainbows.

Monosex brook and rainbow trout were also developed. These techniques were included initially to eliminate the males which if triploided could pose risks to any indigenous brook trout populations. However, monosexing can have some very good ecological benefits in their own right - and they are much less expensive to develop.

This technology was developed with the assistance of Dr. Ed Donaldson who at that time was employed with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, West Vancouver Laboratory. He and his staff are renowned for their contributions to improvements in salmonid aquaculture, particularly in the field of sexual manipulation and reproductive biotechnology. There was also support from OMNR research scientist Dr. Peter Ihssen (now retired) and his staff at the OMNR research facilities at Maple Ontario as well as the Institute for Aquaculture at the University of Stirling, Stirling, U.K.. Stock development was initiated at Lakehead University and completed at a small hatchery/aquaculture operation west of Thunder Bay.

Finding suitable waters to stock, grow and study these fish was the next step in the project. OMNR already had an extensive brook trout stocking program underway with the vast majority of potential waters already part of a stocking program. As discussed previously the company objectives were simple. Waters with no sport fish were desired, as we did not wish to take away any fishing opportunities from other anglers. And preferably the lakes would be relatively inaccessible such that there would be little use by the general public. Initially 30 lakes identified as potential candidates for stocking. None of these lakes were considered for sport fish management by the government of the day.

Testing lakes for dissolved oxygen in late winter

A location west of Kakabeka Falls was selected for detailed studies where there was no road access to any of the lakes. Full OMNR lake surveys were undertaken on selected waters and eventually nine lakes/ponds were used in testing sexually altered trout. Three waters provide suitable habitat for trophy development. The other six were habitat limited - usually winterkill. All waters selected were vetted through the Environmental Assessment process. Trails suitable for ATV and snow machine were made to the various waters. An access road was constructed to Thunder Lake, the largest lake that served as a central location for conducting the fisheries studies. The trails and access road were not easy to construct as the rough terrain, wetlands and many small ponds made land access a difficult proposition.

Initial stockings took place in October 1992, usually with matched plants of treated and untreated fish. Trout were fin clipped to identify different groups. For the most part, studies on the growth, performance and longevity of trout were conducted by angling. Fish were examined after capture and returned to the host water. Examples of these methods are presented in Bob Izumiís show "Thunder Bay Brookies" (see www.damsa.ca). At the end of the study the remaining trout were removed from these waters.

The project received local and provincial media exposure, owing in part to articles by Gord Ellis that were carried by the local Chronicle Journal as well as the sports magazine Ontario Out of Doors. Lori had also conducted interviews with the local television and radio media. There was substantial interest in the science, but also apprehension from some of the public at large with the idea of private enterprise in sport fisheries in Ontario. The most common comments centred on the desirability of government doing these studies, the government creating these fisheries, and whether these fisheries should be open to all. As will be outlined later, I will suggest why the government will never make all the fisheries the public wants (simple economics). Finally, please note that there will be thousands, probably tens of thousands or more of these waters in Ontario that could be turned into prime fisheries but that will remain without sport fish for the foreseeable future Ė unless private interests are involved.

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