Baseline beginnings: Surveying species and spaces for the Scarborough Waterfront Project

Lake Ontario shoreline

The popular saying “You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been” is a guiding principle for Toronto and Region Conservation’s (TRCA) Environmental Monitoring and Data Management section. Collecting baseline data is the foundation for sound decision-making aimed at protecting and enhancing the natural spaces and species in Toronto and region. The Scarborough Waterfront Project is an excellent case in point.

The Scarborough Waterfront Project was launched in 2014 to create a system of greenspaces along an 11 kilometre stretch of the Lake Ontario shoreline between Bluffer’s Park and East Point Park in Toronto, Ontario. The Project aims to provide safe public access to the shoreline, while respecting and protecting the significant natural heritage and cultural features of the area. As part of the Project Environmental Assessment, extensive public consultation has been underway since September 2014 to help inform the details of the proposed works, incorporating community insights and knowledge of the area.

Additionally, the Project team needs to understand local natural heritage features and ecological functions in order to guide the Project. They turn to TRCA’s Environmental Monitoring and Data Management section to provide valuable baseline data regarding fish, wildlife, vegetation communities, habitat features and ecological functions.

What we know

Wildlife, plants and vegetation communities

Scarborough Shoreline Report cover
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Building on the terrestrial data collected since 2000, a comprehensive biological inventory covering 260 hectares of the project land was conducted in 2011 in order to survey for plants, wildlife, vegetation communities and key habitat types.

These data tell us that the study area is mainly comprised of deciduous forest, but also includes meadow, wetland and coastal habitats. The ravines and tablelands contain the most diverse vegetation communities and the largest tracts of forest. For instance, the forest patch located at Sylvan Park covers over 31 hectares.

A total of 658 plants, 69 birds, 7 mammals and 12 amphibians and reptile species are known to inhabit the study area. Of these, 21 vegetation communities, 13 wildlife and 94 plant species are known to be Regional Species of Conservation Concern. For example, the shoreline holds considerable significance for nesting bank swallows, a Species at Risk, with several hundred nesting pairs residing. Examining how the Scarborough Waterfront Project will affect bank swallows and other species of concern, as well as identifying what species-specific habitat enhancement activities are required, are important conversations in the Environmental Assessment process.

TRCA records mammals whenever they are observed, but they can be difficult to survey. In 2015, trail cameras were deployed to achieve a better understanding of mammal use in natural areas. These cameras captured images of various species including white-tailed deer and eastern coyote.

Additionally, TRCA is working with the Royal Ontario Museum to better understand bats within the study area. Monitoring is occurring this summer and the findings will be released in the fall.

Fish communities and shoreline habitat

Staff electrofishing from a boat
Electrofishing surveys along the Scarborough shoreline.

Since 1989, waterfront electrofishing surveys have been conducted annually for the purpose of measuring the effectiveness of Remedial Action Plan (RAP)measures for the Toronto Area of Concern. TRCA has also conducted seining surveys in the nearshore environment.

To date, 49 fish species have been detected amongst the four major aquatic habitat types: coastal wetlands, estuaries, sheltered embayments and open coast. Open coast habitat dominates the study area, and supports a slightly different fish community than the other habitat types. Open coast habitat is particularly suited for coldwater fish such as Lake Trout, Round Whitefish and Lake Whitefish.  This project provides a unique opportunity to study the open coast habitat environment in more detail.

It’s worth noting that two Species at Risk, the American Eel and the Atlantic Salmon, have been found in the study area. Since 2012, the American Eel has been consistently observed in embayment and open coast habitats.

American Eel Hearn Station
American Eel discovered during TRCA waterfront fisheries surveys.

The adult Atlantic Salmon discovered along the Scarborough shoreline last year are a result of the dedicated efforts of the Lake Ontario Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program over the last decade. This is fantastic news when you consider that the Lake Ontario population of Atlantic Salmon had become locally extinct in the late 19th century! Atlantic Salmon are likely attracted to this area by the ideal open coast areas where they can forage for bait fish, which in turn are attracted by the diverse habitat provided by the headland-beach systems.

A survey to determine the types of aquatic vegetation and sediment found along the shoreline is planned for late summer 2016. This information will not only guide decision-making for the Scarborough Waterfront Project but also enhance the general knowledge of the shoreline habitat conditions.

Monitoring Matters!

Baseline data are not only valuable for the Scarborough Waterfront Project, but also provide TRCA with the knowledge base to carry out future shoreline restoration and habitat enhancement activities. Beyond the scope of this project, these data will be used to monitor natural environment health and trends for the TRCA jurisdiction, and tease out more specific details about the diversity and dynamics of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. More importantly, understanding how the Scarborough waterfront functions as part of the network of natural cover remaining in Toronto is vital to the overall protection of species and spaces region-wide.

 

Through scientific data collection, TRCA’s Environmental Monitoring and Data Management team tell the stories about the changes affecting the natural areas and watercourses within our regions. For more information, please visit our webpage, follow us on Twitter, subscribe to our Monitoring Matters e-newsletter, or visit our YouTube playlist.