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Cootes Paradise marsh is the largest wetland at the western end of Lake Ontario, on the west side of Hamilton Harbour. The wetlands surround old growth forests that support a large variety of plants and animals that include rare and threatened species. The Cootes Paradise nature sanctuary is a magnificent example of plant biodiversity in Canada. In fact, the lands contain one of the highest biodiversity of plants per hectare in Canada and the highest biodiversity of plants in the region with 877 species. It also holds the most endangered species in the region with 35 identified species.
As a result of its location and scale, this wetland is considered to be one of the most important migratory waterfowl staging habitats on the lower Great Lakes and the largest nursery habitat for fish in the region. Cootes Paradise marsh was designated a fish sanctuary in 1874, with the marsh and surrounding lands officially preserved as a formal, provincial game sanctuary in 1927.
Its location makes it an important migratory bird stopover as well. The sanctuary was included as part of the natural land holdings of the Royal Botanical Gardens upon its formation in 1941. Today this 3 km long marsh is the largest fish nursery in western Lake Ontario and one of the most significant migratory bird staging areas on the lower Great Lakes.
Designations to protect Cootes Paradise
This 600-hectare wildlife sanctuary is highlighted by a 320-hectare river-mouth wetland. Owned and managed by the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG), the marsh is part of the Cootes Paradise Nature Reserve. It is designated as a National Historic site, a Nationally Important Bird Area (IBA), and a Nationally Important Reptile and Amphibian Area (IMPARA).
The Ontario Provincial Government has designated Cootes Paradise as a Provincially Significant Class 1 Wetland and an Area of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSI). It also is listed as an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) in the Hamilton Region.
Links to UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve areas
Its urban location makes this sanctuary a vital link to other adjacent Niagara Escarpment UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve areas in the region including Spencer Gorge, Dundas Valley, Iroquois Heights and Borer’s Falls/Rock Chapel. The wetlands 30,000-hectare watershed also acts as the catchment for three main waterways: Spencer Creek (the largest creek in the region), as well as Borer’s Creek and Chedoke Creek. Many smaller streams also drain from the adjacent escarpment, including Delsey Creek, Westdale Creek, Long Valley Brook, Hickory Brook and Highland Creek.
Princess Point rain garden filters storm water
The Princess Point rain garden was installed in 2014 by Bay Area Restoration Council volunteers, in partnership with the Royal Botanical Gardens. Typically, a rain garden is a sunken garden, with deep-rooted native plants and grasses, planted four to eight inches deep, designed to capture, absorb and naturally filter storm water.
During heavy rainfalls and after snow melts, this garden collects storm water from the parking lot and filters pollutants that would otherwise enter Cootes Paradise. Water that enters the garden slowly infiltrates into the ground. The rain garden reduces storm water runoff and downstream erosion which improves water quality. It also provides food and habitat for a variety of butterflies, birds and other wildlife.
Re-planting Cootes Paradise with native species
Related to the goldfish, the common carp is an invasive species that has nearly destroyed plant cover in Cootes Paradise. This is because carp feed along the bottom of the marsh and uproot plants along the way. Surprisingly, it is estimated that carp are responsible for the loss of 85 percent of the plant cover in Cootes Paradise. To counter this effect, the Royal Botanical Gardens Fishway has drastically reduced the number of carp entering the marsh. Another important initiative is the re-vegetation of the marsh. The Bay Area Restoration Council’s Marsh Volunteer Planting Program brings community volunteers into the marsh to assist the RBG with replanting of native species.
Fishway structure creates carp-barrier
The Royal Botanical Gardens Fishway is probably one of the most well-known sites along the Hamilton Harbour. It is located at the mouth of the Desjardins Canal which is the only channel Royal Botanical Gardens Fishway that connects Cootes Paradise and Hamilton Harbour. The Fishway is the first two-way fishway and carp barrier in the Great Lakes. It began operating in 1997 and is designed to keep non-native carp out of Cootes while maintaining the flow of water and populations of native aquatic species. Before the installation of the Fishway, there were an estimated 70,000 carp in the marsh. As a result of this structure, it is estimated there are less than 1,000 carp in Cootes Paradise. View Highlight Story
Protecting turtles in Cootes Paradise
For a number of years, RBG has worked with the Hamilton Conservation Foundation to protect turtles by installing silt fencing along the length of Cootes Drive. This is because the roadway is directly adjacent to Cootes Paradise Marsh and Spencer Creek which is a major thoroughfare for breeding turtles.
Before installing the fencing, turtles crossing the road were killed regularly as they attempted to reach breeding grounds. The 700 metre silt fence acts as a barrier and guides turtles along the side of the road to culverts where they can pass safely under the road. The turtles are part of the 35 identified endangered species living in Cootes Paradise.
50 years later the bald eagles return
Bald eagles are nearly extinct in the Great Lakes area. But in Cootes Paradise, bald eagles have been wintering and making a slow comeback as a species. The turning point came in 2008 when a pair of bald eagles stayed the entire summer in the sanctuary. This is significant because bald eagles have not nested on the Canadian shores of Lake Ontario in many years. In fact, by the 1980s there were only four active nests in all of the Great Lakes. This amounts to approximately 15 surviving birds. The bald eagle and its survival were greatly affected by a pesticide called DDT, which thins the shells of its eggs compromising the eggs from hatching. For several years, the pair did not lay eggs. Success came on March 22 and 23, 2013, when the first eagles on the Canadian shoreline of Lake Ontario, in more than 50 years, were hatched in Cootes Paradise.
How does it relate to the Clean Harbour Program?
As the result of its proximity on the west side of Hamilton Harbour and the fact that the Dundas Sewage Treatment Plant discharges into the inflowing creeks, Cootes Paradise is positively affected by the Clean Harbour Program. One of the initiatives of the Clean Harbour Program is the installation of Combined Sewage Overflow tanks (CSOs).
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