Volunteers sub in for students at annual eyed egg event

Volunteers stack the Scotty boxes filled with brook trout eyed eggs into the cool waters of Norton’s Creek.

MANITOWANING – This year’s Manitoulin Streams Improvement Association eyed egg event, at which 10,000 brook trout eggs get processed and stocked in Assiginack’s Norton’s Creek, went ahead without students in early December, using a team of volunteers instead to support healthy ecosystems on Manitoulin Island for generations to come.

“It was funny because with our school groups, it’s usually loud and there’s a lot of chatter. This year it was all adults and it got really quiet when everybody sat down and went to work,” said Seija Deschenes, project co-ordinator at Manitoulin Streams.

For just over a decade, the conservation group has invited school children to help take brook trout eyed eggs (thus named because the eggs are at a stage when the fish’s eyes are starting to visibly develop inside the egg) and place them into Norton’s Creek at the late Bob Hutton’s property on the Bidwell.

The eggs arrive to Manitoulin Streams in coolers and students use spoons and eye-droppers to place one in each cell of specially designed hatchery cases, called Scotty boxes. Then, the group travels to the creek and secures the Scotty boxes in an area with spawning gravel, all the while learning lessons about ecosystems, biology and mankind’s impact on the natural world.

For much of the program’s run, Manitoulin Streams has stocked 10,000 brook trout eggs into the creek. Studies have revealed that the fish are returning to the creek at various stages of their life cycle.

All field trips are on hold this year during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning the students that normally help out weren’t able to take part in the in-person education portion. Instead, a group of nearly two dozen volunteers from Little Current Fish and Game Club turned out and made quick work of the task at hand. 

They met at the Assiginack Arena, a place where there was ample space to spread out and abide by physical distancing protocols in a warm environment. Ms. Deschenes brought in the eggs after the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry dropped off a shipment at her home from its Hill’s Lake Fish Culture Station in Englehart.

“We were just thankful that MNR was still able to provide the eggs and continue the program. I was talking with the gentleman that delivered the eggs and he mentioned they’d gone through cutbacks this year,” she said.

Normally, representatives from Collège Boréal visit Manitoulin to conduct an electrofishing survey on the creek, but this was also cancelled during the pandemic.

“From what we understand, people fishing on Lake Manitou are catching nice sized brook trouts now. What’s happening is the fish are using the creek as a rearing and nursing area; they’ll come up to spawn and go back out to the bigger water when they get larger. We’re getting a variety of sizes throughout Norton’s Creek,” said Ms. Deschenes.

Manitoulin Streams has done considerable work to rehabilitate the stream and near-shore habitat around Norton’s Creek in recent years, including reducing contaminants and ensuring ample rocks and spawning gravel are in place to create a suitable ecosystem.

“You can really see the progression of the stream. The trees are getting a lot taller that we’ve planted over the years, the grasses are high, there’s not as much sediment occurring in the spawning gravel areas, and I was looking back and we had planted some high bush cranberry and other berries along the fenceline; they’re starting to get quite high now,” she said.

After the in-stream work, Manitoulin Streams held a board meeting at the arena because all of its members were present already. The group is largely working remotely but continues to plan for fundraising and projects in the new year.

One of the new projects is in partnership with Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territories, pending available funding.

“We’ve been working with them over a few years to identify sites along Smith Bay Creek that we want to start restoring. Hopefully we can work with schools in that area and get the kids back out as it fits with land-based learning along the stream,” Ms. Deschenes said, adding that the creek is a spawning zone for rainbow trout.