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COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Atlantic Salmon (Lake Ontario population) in Canada


Global range

The Atlantic salmon originally occurred in every country whose rivers flowed into the North Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea (Mills 1989) (Figure 2).  In Europe the range of the Atlantic salmon extended southward from Iceland along the Atlantic coastal drainage to Northern Portugal including rivers in both France and Spain (MacCrimmon & Gots 1979).  In North America, the range of the anadromous Atlantic salmon was northward from the Hudson River drainage in New York State, to outer Ungava Bay in Quebec (MacCrimmon & Gots 1979) (Figure 3).  Non-migratory or non-anadromous forms of Atlantic salmon occur in several glaciated areas of Europe, Scandinavia and North America.

The current distribution remains similar to the historical range; however, the number of rivers supporting spawning runs in each country as well as the estimated population densities are much lower than those recorded historically.

Current Global Distribution of Atlantic salmon (Salmo Salar), excluding Canada.

Figure 2.  Current Global Distribution of Atlantic salmon (Salmo Salar), excluding Canada. Source: World Wildlife Fund website: www.worlwildlife.org/oceans/salmon_handout.pdf. Arrows indicate migration patterns of wild salmon. The total number of historical salmon bearing rivers worldwide is indicated at the right of map.

Canadian range

Historically, nearly every suitable coastal stream within Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Labrador, and Newfoundland supported a run of salmon (MacCrimmon & Gots 1979) (Figure 3).  By the mid-1800s, Atlantic salmon populations on Canada's east coast were in decline, suffering principally from the timber trade that necessitated the damming of major streams and rivers used for spawning by Atlantic salmon and that subsequently destroyed or rendered inaccessible critical spawning and rearing habitat (Dunfield 1985).  Atlantic salmon can still be found in much of their northern native range on the Atlantic coast, but populations are currently at very low levels, possibly due to recent reduced marine survival, as well as fishing pressures.  A number of populations of non-anadromous salmon still occur in lakes throughout the region, especially in Newfoundland, Labrador and Quebec (MacCrimmon & Gots 1979, Scott & Crossman 1973).

The earliest written records of Atlantic salmon in Lake Ontario were those of Jesuit missionaries, which described catches of eight to ten barrels of salmon in a single night of fishing (Carcao 1986).  Fishers were able to catch these fish at all times of the year in Lake Ontario, its tributaries and the interior waters of New York (Clinton 1822) (Figure 4).  Runs of salmon were reported to have occurred in most of the north shore tributaries of the St. Lawrence River to the Ottawa River (MacCrimmon & Gots 1979).  No salmon runs were known in the Ottawa River itself due perhaps to poor quality spawning and rearing habitat (Dunfield 1985).  Lake Ontario salmon had historic isolation from the other Great Lakes to the west, due to the impassable Niagara Falls below Lake Erie.

Current Canadian distribution of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar).

Figure 3. Current Canadian distribution of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar).  The shading refers to the general areas where the presence of Atlantic salmon has been confirmed through literature records or through observation; at the scale of this map, these locations are approximations.  The X indicates the landlocked Trout Lake, Ontario population. Both the Trout Lake and Great Lakes populations (currently including Ontario) are introduced populations as a direct result of stocking efforts.

Tributaries of LakeOntarioin which Atlantic salmon were native: circled numbers indicate tributaries in which native salmon were planted (Parsons 1973)

Figure 4.  Tributaries of LakeOntarioin which Atlantic salmon were native: circled numbers indicate tributaries in which native salmon were planted (Parsons 1973).