TWAHRS Summary

Executive Summary


Historically, the Toronto waterfront was a rich mosaic of aquatic and terrestrial habitats, including bluffs and beaches, cobble reefs, estuaries and bays with productive marshes, wooded shorelines and meadows. Clear water streams and broad rivers meandered through densely forested watersheds to Lake Ontario. Diverse communities of fish and wildlife lived in these habitats, which provided opportunities for shelter, food, spawning, nesting, over-wintering and migration.

Over the past 200 years, the pressures of colonization, port expansion, industry, transportation and recreation have changed this waterfront almost beyond recognition. With these changes came serious environmental degradation, to the extent that in 1987, the Toronto waterfront was included on the International Joint Commission’s list of 42 Areas of Concern around the Great Lakes.

In recent decades considerable work has been undertaken to begin the process of restoring natural habitats and improving water quality, with promising results as aquatic and terrestrial communities begin to show signs of recovery.

The desire to improve the waterfront has been enshrined in recent City of Toronto plans and policies, including its new Official Plan, Natural Heritage Study, and Central Waterfront Part 2 Plan. The Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation was established by the three levels of government in 2001 to oversee development of the downtown waterfront. The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority has a comprehensive Natural Heritage Program including both terrestrial and aquatic restoration initiatives.

In this context, this Aquatic Habitat Restoration Strategy is a timely initiative to ensure that waterfront revitalization incorporates improvements to aquatic habitats as an integral part of creating a more liveable and sustainable waterfront.

Goal and Objectives

The geographic scope of the Toronto Waterfront Aquatic Habitat Restoration Strategy is the Lake Ontario waterfront from Etobicoke Creek to the Rouge River, extending up the estuaries of the rivers and creeks. The overall goal of the strategy is “to develop and achieve consensus on an aquatic habitat restoration strategy that will maximize the potential ecological integrity of the Toronto waterfront”.

To achieve this goal, the strategy has four primary objectives:

  1. identify the potential for self-sustaining aquatic communities in open coast, sheltered embayments, coastal wetlands and estuaries.
  2. identify limiting factors, evaluate opportunities and propose actions to protect and enhance nearshore habitats and restore ecological integrity.
  3. develop sustainability indices to evaluate the success of the strategy, taking into account changes in land use and policy context.
  4. develop an implementation plan to restore aquatic habitats on the Toronto waterfront, including targets, actions, roles and responsibilities, public education, regular reporting and plan review.

Guiding Principles

The strategy strives to create a more sustainable waterfront as part of the Living City. The Living City is the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority’s vision for the protection and restoration of ecological health in the Toronto region. It is based on the recognition that in order to ensure a healthy environment for ourselves, future generations and the life around us, we must stop acting as if our actions have no consequences on the environment and develop new ways to live, work and play. The Living City vision encourages human communities to flourish as part of nature’s beauty and diversity in shared habitats where we learn from nature and mimic natural processes to achieve greater environmental health, social well-being and economic vitality.

Within this context of sustainability, the strategy uses an ecosystem approach to increase ecological integrity, provide suitable conditions for the maintenance of self-sustaining communities and improve ecological connectivity. It emphasizes conservation design based on native and naturalized species. It takes into account human uses of the shoreline and nearshore waters and it is being developed using a consultative, consensus-based approach involving stakeholders and the general public.

  • The ecosystem approach is based on the understanding that “everything is connected to everything else” and focuses on the relationships among air, land, water and living organisms, including humans and their activities. It takes a comprehensive view of the combined effects of all activities in an area over time and seeks to achieve overall, long-term benefits while avoiding negative cumulative impacts.
  • Ecological integrity is the ability of an ecosystem to maintain its organization and functions. Some of the factors that contribute to integrity are resilience to change, productivity, vigour, and species diversity.
  • Self-sustaining communities are able to reproduce naturally, with minimal human intervention, to maintain healthy populations of plants and animals, including species at risk.
  • Native and naturalized species are those species that are indigenous to the Toronto waterfront (eg lake trout) as well as those that have been introduced but have become an integral part of the ecosystem (eg Pacific salmon). Most non-native species (eg carp, goby) take advantage of degraded ecosystems, and their numbers and productivity will be reduced when ecosystem health improves.
  • Ecological connectivity recognizes the physical and biological relationships among nearshore, watershed and lakewide ecosystems. Examples include shoreline processes, wetland functions, migration and over-wintering patterns, and spawning and feeding requirements.
  • Conservation design is planning and designing for a variety of wildlife habitats and incorporating principles of natural succession to restore or create functional habitat.
  • Human uses are recognized as an integral part of the waterfront. Water and land-based human activities will be incorporated in the habitat restoration strategy. Habitat improvements will be integrated into waterfront redevelopment initiatives wherever possible.
  • A consultative approach is essential to ensure that the many interests of individuals, groups and agencies are met in seeking to improve aquatic habitats. Although there may be competing or conflicting objectives and approaches, this strategy strives to achieve consensus and a clear direction for future actions.

The strategy is intended to improve waterfront aquatic habitats for all species of native and naturalized species — fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, molluscs, invertebrates and plants. However it focuses on fish because they are excellent indicators of the overall health of the ecosystem. In addition, aquatic habitats that meet the varied requirements of diverse species of fish at different stages of their lifecycle also meet the needs of many other species.


The Toronto Waterfront Aquatic Habitat Restoration Strategy includes a number of related products:

  1. Synopsis of existing physical processes, cultural influences and aquatic communities.
  2. Compendium of habitat restoration techniques.
  3. Habitat plan that matches habitat restoration techniques with the appropriate physical and biological conditions across the waterfront.


The development of the Toronto Waterfront Aquatic Habitat Restoration Strategy is being guided by an Advisory Panel and an Agency Stakeholder Committee (see Appendix A for membership). On May 15th, a habitat restoration workshop brought together a diverse group of agency and community stakeholders for a preliminary discussion of approaches to restoring specific habitats. On June 10th, a public forum was held to provide an opportunity for public review and input into the draft strategy. The final strategy will be released in September 2003.

Related Inititives

The Toronto Waterfront Aquatic Habitat Restoration Strategy builds on key strategic directions and plans for Lake Ontario and the Toronto Waterfront.

Fish community objectives for Lake Ontario prepared by New York State and the Province of Ontario recognize the importance of nearshore fish communities and the aquatic environment upon which they depend9. The objectives state that the nearshore fish community “will be composed of a diversity of self-sustaining native fishes” including walleye, yellow perch, smallmouth and largemouth bass, sunfish, and eels. The objectives encourage the expansion of the populations of these species into favourable habitats. It is also implicit that repairing nearshore environments would provide needed habitat for young forms of off-shore and deep water species, thus contri

buting to the objective for pelagic fish communities like lake trout, whitefish and their prey species of both fish and invertebrates. In this regard, the Toronto Waterfront Aquatic Habitat Restoration Strategy is meeting the requirement of sustaining existing populations of these species, and proposing places and methods to create more “favourable” habitats to assist in the expansion of ranges closer to former boundaries that existed before the mid-1800s.

Operation Doorstep Angling was prepared by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources in 197610. It examined the fishery resource of the watersheds and waterfront within the jurisdiction of the Metro Toronto and Region Conservation Authority with a view towards improving and promoting angling.

In 1993, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources published a more detailed document for Metro Toronto Waterfront Aquatic Habitat Rehabilitation11 under the auspices of the Metro Toronto Remedial Action Plan. The document identifies habitat goals, objectives and targets focusing on protection, enhancement and restoration. It also provides rehabilitation strategies, assessment criteria, monitoring activities, rehabilitation measures and site-specific recommendations for action. The Plan provided the basis for the habitat classification of open coast and sheltered areas that is being used today. Many of the recommendations of the Plan have been implemented and are reflected in the summary of shoreline regeneration projects in the section on Cultural Influences.

The Policy for the Management of Fish Habitat administered by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans provides important direction for the Strategy12. Its overall policy objective is to achieve net gain of habitat for Canada’s fisheries resources with specific goals for conservation, restoration and development of fish habitat.

In addition, the Toronto Waterfront Aquatic Habitat Restoration Strategy is being undertaken in parallel with a number of current, complementary initiatives and will be coordinated with them wherever possible.

For example, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority is developing a comprehensive Natural Heritage Program throughout its jurisdiction13. This program has identified restoration areas and significant habitats in the bioregion. Within this framework, two integrated strategies are being developed for aquatic and terrestrial habitats on the Toronto Waterfront.

The Toronto Bay Initiative is a community group dedicated to promoting a clean, green, connected and accessible Toronto Bay. In 1998 the group published A Living Place: opportunities for habitat regeneration in Toronto Bay14 and has been working with the City of Toronto and TRCA to implement a number of habitat projects, including the Spadina Quay Wetland, the Peter Street Slip, and the Toronto Island Sand Dune Restoration project.

The City of Toronto recently developed a Wet Weather Flow Management Master Plan to improve water and sediment quality throughout the watersheds and waterfront15. Implementation of this plan will be an important contribution to the Remedial Action Plan process to clean up the Toronto and Region Area of Concern mentioned earlier. It will also result in improved environmental conditions that are necessary for healthy aquatic habitats.

As noted above, the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation is responsible for implementation of waterfront improvements in the Central waterfront, as well as selected projects at Port Union (Scarborough) and Mimico (Etobicoke)16. The City of Toronto is implementing a new parks plan for the Harbourfront area. All these projects provide opportunities to contribute to aquatic habitat restoration.


Based on a thorough analysis of the physical processes, cultural influences and aquatic communities on the Toronto Waterfront, the Strategy concludes that most of the aquatic ecosystems suffer from poor ecological health, with a few locations, such as the Rouge River estuary and parts of Toronto Bay, exhibiting somewhat better conditions. Traditionally, urban planning, waterfront redevelopment, park development, stormwater management and shoreline management activities have not paid sufficient attention to the needs of aquatic communities. However, it is essential to recognize that aquatic ecosystems are integral to the environmental health of the waterfront, and must be given full consideration in planning, design and development processes.

This strategy provides a strong foundation including the biophysical attributes of the shoreline, an illustrated compendium of habitat restoration techniques and a habitat plan on a shoreline reach and site specific basis. It builds on and implements a number of key plans and policies, including the City of Toronto Official Plan, Central Waterfront Part 2 Plan and Natural Heritage Study; the Federal Policy for the Management of Fish Habitat; Lake Ontario Fish Community Objectives; and the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation’s Development Plan and Public Space Framework.


The strategy is a blueprint for positive change, providing guiding principles and practical tools for implementing habitat projects across the Toronto Waterfront. The following recommendations for waterfront agencies and other landowners are intended to ensure that aquatic habitats are created and restored. The recommendations focus on endorsement of the strategy, improving ecological health, and mechanisms for implementation.


Waterfront revitalization provides opportunities for many agencies and private landowners to incorporate aquatic habitat restoration from the outset of a wide variety of projects, ranging from new building developments and environmental infrastructure to new or renovated parks and shoreline management. The Advisory Panel recommends that:

  • Agencies with responsibilities for the waterfront (eg. Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation, City of Toronto, Toronto Port Authority, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources) should formally endorse this Strategy as the guiding document for the creation and restoration of waterfront aquatic habitats.
  • Endorsement recognizes the need to achieve significant increases in aquatic habitats and restore self-sustaining aquatic communities. Agencies use this Strategy as a planning tool to ensure that all future waterfront projects incorporate aquatic habitat improvements.


In order to restore healthy, self-sustaining aquatic communities, it is necessary to create the physical, chemical and biological conditions that are required for a balanced community of native and naturalized species. Most non-native species (eg. carp, goby) take advantage of degraded ecosystems, and their numbers and productivity will be reduced when ecosystem health improves. To achieve the conditions required for centres of biological organization that will support self-sustaining aquatic communities, the Advisory Panel recommends that:

  • Water and sediment quality should be improved as quickly as possible by implementing the City of Toronto’s Wet Weather Flow Management Master Plan.
  • Top predators (eg walleye, muskellunge) should be re-introduced where appropriate and carp should be excluded from key habitats that are favourable for their reproduction (eg coastal wetlands).
  • Structural diversity should be increased across the waterfront, by implementing the habitat plan on a reach by reach basis. In most cases, there is sufficient scientific knowledge to proceed with implementation. In cases where there is less certainty, experimental management approaches should be applied, providing an opportunity to monitor, learn and adjust methods where necessary.
  • Emphasis should be placed on opportunities associated with:
    • existing centres of biological organization where a relatively modest investment will create significant benefits,
    • places where development that is largely focussed on land, such as new waterfront parks and urban redevelopment, can easily incorporate major improvements to aquatic habitats, and
    • shoreline management projects such as erosion control and harbour maintenance.


The success of the Toronto Waterfront Aquatic Habitat Restoration Strategy will be measured by the extent of project implementation, reporting of improvements in aquatic habitats, the utilization of the Strategy by waterfront agencies and private landowners, and the acceptance of projects by the public. To ensure success, the Advisory Panel recommends that:

  • The TRCA establish an inter-agency coordinating mechanism to:
    • ensure that aquatic habitat opportunities associated with existing centres of biological organization, park development and amenities, waterfront revitalization, shoreline management, lakefilling and erosion control projects are incorporated into ecological pre-planning, design, and implementation of projects.
    • ensure a high standard of scientific rigour, use of the best tools, techniques and appropriate design of experimental habitat management projects.
    • identify potential cumulative effects of projects, oversee monitoring programs, and develop sustainability indices to determine trends over time.
    • report regularly on the Strategy implementation, including progress reports on specific projects, aquatic community trends, and other measures, the first progress report to be provided by December 2004.
    • similar strategy should be developed for the TRCA’s jurisdiction within the Durham waterfront.


The Lake Ontario waterfront is a special place that helps to define Toronto’s character and is valued and used in many ways. In recent decades, many waterfront areas have been experiencing a transition from industrial and transportation uses to a mix of residential, commercial, cultural and recreation uses. A clean and healthy waterfront provides a much more attractive setting in which to live, work and play and is becoming an increasingly important element of Toronto’s quality of life.

For example, many recreation activities take place on, in or near the water, and are enhanced by opportunities to view wildlife, catch fish and enjoy the beauty of natural landscapes. Waterfront locations provide a wonderful venue for physical exercise and relaxation, benefiting human health and well-being. Tourists are attracted to vibrant waterfronts, and show a growing interest in experiencing nature. Implementation of this aquatic habitat restoration strategy will help to foster these opportunities for both residents and visitors while generating considerable social and economic benefits for the community.

The emphasis of this strategy on ecological integrity, habitat diversity and native species will encourage the development of diverse, self-sustaining communities of fish and wildlife. In turn, these are less expensive to manage over the long term than more formal, high maintenance landscapes.


1 Whillans, T. Waterfront Ecosystems: Restoring is Remembering. In Roots, B.I, Chant, D.A. and Heidenreich, C.E. 1999. Special Places: the changing ecosystems of the Toronto Region. Royal Canadian Institute.

2 Toronto and Region Remedial Action Plan. 2001. Clean Waters, Healthy Habitats. Progress Report 2001. Waterfront Regeneration Trust.

3 Toronto and Region Remedial Action Plan. 2001. Clean Waters, Healthy Habitats. Progress Report 2001. Waterfront Regeneration Trust.

4 City of Toronto. 2002. The Official Plan for the City of Toronto.

5 City of Toronto and Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. 2001. City of Toronto Natural Heritage Study.

6 City of Toronto. 2003. Making Waves – Central Waterfront Plan Part II.

7 Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation.

8 Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.

9 Stewart, T.J., R.E. Lange, S D Orsatti, C P Schneider, A Mathers, M E Daniels. 1999. Fish-community objectives for Lake Ontario. Great Lakes Fish. Comm. Spec. Pub. 99-1. 56p.

10 Macnab, I.D. and R.A. Hester. 1976. Operation Doorstep Angling. Metropolitan Toronto Fishery Project, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Metropolitan Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.

11 Strus, R.H., I.D. Buchanan and C.T. Rance. 1993. Metro Toronto Aquatic Habitat Rehabilitation Plan. Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Metro Toronto Remedial Action Plan.

12 Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada. 1986. Policy for the Management of Fish Habitat.

13 City of Toronto and Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. 2001. City of Toronto Natural Heritage Study.

14 Kidd, J. 1998. A Living Place: Opportunities for Habitat Regeneration in Toronto Bay. Toronto Bay Initiative.

15 City of Toronto, 2003. Wet Weather Flow Management Master Plan.

16 Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation.