Why this big fish caught in downtown Toronto is a big deal for the environment

Veteran angler Will Sampson says he's never seen anything like it. Last Sunday, he caught a fish that's almost never seen in Toronto Harbour: a muskie. Conservation experts say his catch is proof their efforts to naturalize the city's waterfront are working.

Toronto angler says muskie is a ‘unicorn’ catch in city harbour

Toronto fisherman Will Sampson holds the muskie he caught in Toronto Harbour. Conservation authorities say it's the first fish of its kind found in the Toronto waters in more than 30 years. (Submitted by Will Sampson)

Will Sampson has been fishing in Toronto Harbour for his entire life and he couldn't believe what was happening.

The water was calm last Sunday morning as Sampson and a friend trolled their usual spots between Toronto Island and the downtown waterfront. A layer of fog still covered the city's towering skyline.

With the CN Tower and other Toronto landmarks just a few hundred metres away, Sampson landed a big fish rarely seen in the big city.

"It was definitely a shock and we knew we had caught a unicorn."

At first Sampson thought he had a large pike, a species more common to the area. But as the fish, which was just over a metre long, emerged from the water, he got a closer look at its lighter colours and spots — features that are typical of muskellunge, commonly known as muskie. 

Sampson with his big catch. Muskies once thrived in the waters off Toronto. But natural habitats were destroyed by urbanization. (Submitted by Will Sampson)

"That's when we both just lost our minds," Sampson said.

"We actually caught one in downtown Toronto, you know. You look to your left and there's four million people in condo buildings and we're down there with a 43-inch muskie in the net."

It wasn't there long. After snapping some photos, Sampson returned the fish to the water. He didn't have the proper scale to weigh such a large muskie but guesses it was just under 20 lbs or around nine kilograms.

'Super uncommon' fish: TRCA

It was certainly a first for Sampson, 31, an experienced angler and fishing guide with his family-run business Detour Fishing Charters.

But it's also a rare catch for the experts who closely monitor the species of fish living in the waters around Canada's largest city.

"Catching a muskie in Toronto Harbour is super uncommon," said Rick Portiss, a senior manager of aquatic monitoring and management at the Toronto Region Conservation Authority.

"We've never had one in our catch over 30 years of environmental monitoring on the Toronto waterfront," he added.

Portiss says muskie are more commonly found in other parts of Lake Ontario, including near the St. Lawrence River and the Niagara Region.

Dating back to the 1800s, it was once a thriving species in the Toronto area. Portiss says over two centuries, muskie habitat was destroyed as the city's waterfront was urbanized.

Natural habitats coming back

But in recent decades, through the efforts of governments and organizations such as the TRCA, natural habitats in and around Toronto are being restored and Lake Ontario water quality has improved.

Portiss says new wetlands are being created along with waterfront parks that include naturalized areas. He believes Sunday's appearance of a pure muskie just off the city shoreline is a signal that those efforts are working.

"Finding a fish like this is one true sign of an improvement of the habitat and the restoration of activities in the Toronto waterfront," Portiss said.

He says he thinks it could be the start of positive trend and expects to see more muskies and other uncommon fish like walleye in Toronto waters.

Portiss says the massive renewal of Toronto's Portlands and the reconfiguration of the Don River includes the creation of fish and wildlife habitats.

"When they're building that precinct, they're not just stopping at infrastructure for humans. They're looking at it holistically and they're building the fish habitat and wildlife components, too."


Trevor Dunn is an award-winning journalist with CBC Toronto. Since 2008 he's covered a variety of topics, ranging from local and national politics to technology on the South American countryside. Trevor is interested in uncovering news: real estate, crime, corruption, art, sports. Reach out to him. Se habla español.