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Key Issues

Working towards a healthy harbour

BARC works alongside community partners, educators, and volunteers to tackle key issues in the Hamilton Harbour watershed. Read on to learn about the issues and projects BARC is currently focusing on in the Harbour. 

Restoring Fish and Wildlife Habitat

A habitat is the natural home of wild animals and plants. Habitats provide food, water, shelter, and space for species to flourish. One of the most important habitat types is a wetland, which provides space for both aquatic and land dwelling species to survive.

Hamilton Harbour has lost over 70% of its original wetland habitat due to industrial development and infilling.

Before the 20th century, the nutrient-rich, shallow waters of Cootes Paradise thrived as a coastal freshwater marsh habitat. A large majority of Cootes Paradise was covered with emergent aquatic plants, such as wild rice, and submergent plants like wild celery.

This vegetation provided sufficient food, shelter and migration stop-overs for a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects. The abundant wetland also provided spawning habitat for fish. 

But the introduction of invasive common carp to Lake Ontario disrupted this ecosystem.  Common carp uproot wetland vegetation as they shovel through the bottom sediment in search of food. By 1985, common carp had contributed to Cootes Marsh losing 85% of its original vegetation coverage. This permanent loss of aquatic flora led to poor quality and directly impacted fish and wildlife inhabitants and economies of Lake Ontario. 

To halt the common carp invasion, Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) constructed an innovative gate system called the Fishway in 1996. The Fishway acts as a barrier to exclude common carp from entering Cootes Paradise Marsh, while still allowing native species to access the area.

Bay Area Restoration Council (BARC), in partnership with the RBG, has been running our Classroom Mini Marsh Program since the 1990s! In this Program, participating classes receive a free mini marsh kit that includes a bowl, a soil and sand mixture, native wetland plants, and a snail. Classes watch their mini marsh grow in their classroom for several months and then return it to us at the end of the school year. All of the mini marshes are planted in Cootes Paradise Marsh as part of the restoration efforts! This Program directly involves the community in revegetating the harbour while also educating students on the importance of restoring fish and wildlife habitats. This past 2023 Mini Marsh season, BARC gave out 400 mini marsh kits – more kits than ever before!

A key component of restoring the harbour is revegetating it! BARC and the RBG organize a series of marsh volunteer plantings annually. Volunteers are brought out into the marsh with chest waders to plant native wetland plants. Marsh plantings directly revegetate the harbour to improve the fish and wildlife habitat.

Stormwater/Runoff Pollution

There are two primary ways pollution occurs: point source pollution and nonpoint source pollution. Point source pollution refers to pollution that comes from one primary place that is easily identified. Nonpoint source pollution is pollution where the source is more difficult to identify. An example of nonpoint source pollution is stormwater runoff.

In the natural environment, rainwater moves slowly through the natural land. A raindrop may fall in a stream, land on vegetation where it will evaporate, or infiltrate the soil. Once in the soil, rainwater that is not absorbed by plants will eventually become groundwater or enter creeks. 

But people have paved over the land. Now, rain flows quickly over impermeable surfaces such as rooftops, driveways and parking lots. Rather than entering the soil and absorbing into the ground, the water is redirected to nearby storm drains and streams. This excess water is known as stormwater runoff. 

Impermeable surfaces that have been created through urbanization have led to large quantities of water picking up pollution on its way to the water source. This is why urban areas have the greatest amount of runoff, simply because the water that flows over the land is not absorbed by the ground. Stormwater runoff picks up pollutants along the way and carries pollutants to our streams and our storm drains. 

Stormwater runoff also causes flooding. Streams can overflow and damage roadways and property. Stormwater can also seep into people’s homes and cause basements to flood. Climate change is expected to cause more frequent and intense storms, which could make this an even bigger problem.

BARC uses multiple approaches to address stormwater run-off and pollution in the Hamilton Harbour watershed. Our education programs like Yellow Fish Road, Stream of Dreams, and Home to Harbour encourage both students and community members to address the issues of point source and nonpoint source pollution in their neighbourhoods.

In addition, BARC works with other organizations in collecting community science water quality data. Our Community Water Leaders use Water Rangers protocols and equipment to gather water quality data, which is shared on the open source data platforms from Water Rangers and Datastream. Sharing our data with open source platforms is important because it provides readily available information about  our water bodies to both the public and scientific researchers.

Plastic Pollution

Plastic pollution is an emerging issue in our Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Plastic Clean-up estimates that 10 million kilograms of plastic pollution enter the Great Lakes each year. Plastic debris can entangle and injure wildlife, and can end up as part of the food chain if they are consumed by aquatic critters. 

Common sources of plastic pollution that turn up in Hamilton Harbour clean-ups include cigarette butts, plastic film, and the small plastic pellets used in plastic manufacturing, also known as nurdles. 

BARC has worked with Pollution Probe and the Hamilton Oshawa Port Authority to study the type of plastic pollution entering Hamilton Harbour. Plastic waste was collected by a litter-capturing technology called Seabins, which act as floating trash cans. BARC then led volunteers in sorting and identifying the type of debris turning up in the Seabins. 

BARC also hosts several clean-ups throughout the year around the Hamilton Harbour Watershed. Not only do clean-ups directly target plastic pollution, but they also provide opportunities for community members to clean their local neighbourhoods. BARC hosts several clean-ups each year and often partners with other environmental agencies such as A Greener Future and Field and Stream Rescue Team to target specific areas in need.

Education programs are an integral way to communicate the issues of plastic pollution with the community. BARC provides a free education program in schools known as Home to Harbour that discusses the issues of plastic pollution with high school students. Classes can then participate in a clean-up at their school and identify the types of waste collected. 

Re-establishing Community Connection to Hamilton Harbour

Communities surrounding Hamilton Harbour have been estranged from their major source of water and the ecosystems that can thrive within it. Generations of Hamilton children have grown up beside a body of water they have never touched, explored or fully understood. To restore the Hamilton Harbour watershed, we also need to restore the public connection to the water. 

In 1985, Hamilton Harbour was identified as a Great Lakes Area of Concern, and subsequently the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan (HHRAP) was created in 1992 to guide restoration efforts.  BARC brings the perspectives of the community to the table with some 16 other stakeholder organizations who make up the Bay Area Implementation Team for the HHRAP. And in turn, BARC ensures that Hamilton area residents understand the progress being made, the continued threats, and the science behind the remediation efforts. 

BARC strives to connect Hamilton Harbour residents to the water. Our Community Water Leaders program provides the training and equipment for university level students and young professionals opportunities to collect water quality data around the Hamilton Harbour watershed. BARC uses testing kits from Water Rangers to monitor for specific indicators of water quality. All data is uploaded to the Water Rangers data platform, where the data is validated by a professional.

In this program, BARC provides valuable workshops and networking opportunities for participants to learn about ongoing issues/projects and meet individuals working towards a healthy watershed. Featured guest speakers have included the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG), Hamilton Naturalists Club, Conservation Halton, the City of Hamilton and McMaster University. This program provides hands-on water testing experiences, career building workshops, and presentations to further knowledge about current issues. 

BARC provides free educational programs to schools and libraries located within the Hamilton Harbour watershed. These programs are provided year-round (excluding the summer months) and reach thousands of students each year. The programs instill students with a respect for our aquatic environments and provide them with the tools to protect it.