Historical Impairments

The St. Marys River was identified as an AOC because of impairment of 9 out of 14 beneficial uses defined by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The following is a summary of the impairments in the St. Marys River Area of Concern as per the Stage 2 RAP report (2002)

Beneficial Use Impairment


Conditions in the St. Marys River

Restriction on Fish and Wildlife Consumption
(a)    Restriction on Fish Consumption


Fish consumption advisories are currently in effect for:

– mercury: larger sized chinook salmon (>65cm), walleye (>45cm), yellow perch (>35cm), and longnose suckers (>30cm) in the St. Marys River (OMOE 1999)
– mercury: chinook salmon (>75cm), walleye (>55cm), northern pike (>75cm), and channel catfish (>55cm) in the North Channel of Lake Huron

– mercury: walleye (>36cm) in the St. Marys River
– PCBs: walleye (>35cm), northern pike (>66cm), and carp (>15cm) (MDCH)

(b)   Consumption of Wildlife


Athough there are no guidelines for human consumption of wildlife, the OMNR has advised against the consumption of kidneys and liver from moose, black bear, and deer because of high cadmium levels.  This advisory exists for the entire province of Ontario.

Tainting of Fish and Wildlife Flavour


Tainting of fish from the St. Marys River is not common.  In the few isolated cases that were reported, a determination could not be made as to whether tainting was due to poor handling or other problems, either acute, as in chemical or industrial spills, or chronic, as in long term chemical loading (Skinkle 1992).  Because the incidence of tainted fish is infrequent, a comprehensive fish tainting evaluation has not been conducted.

Degradation of Fish and Wildlife Populations
(a)    Dynamics of fish populations


The St. Marys River is the major contributor of sea lamprey infestation to northern Lake Huron, where parasitic lamprey account for an annual mortality of 54% of adult lake trout. Excessive mortality rates preclude lake trout rehabilitation efforts as well as other Lake Huron fishery programs (GLFC 1997). The sea lamprey population in the St. Marys River is estimated to be ~ 5.2 million (T. Morse, pers. comm.). Sea lamprey control measures are expected to reduce lamprey populations in Lake Huron and northern Lake Michigan appreciably.

Fish communities are diverse and healthy in the St. Marys River; however, populations of native fish have been reduced and assemblages have changed due to habitat alteration, over fishing, pollution, exotic species, and stocking. Zebra mussels were discovered in the Ontario waters of the St. Marys River in 1994. A Lake Superior Zebra Mussel Survey (1991) identified the area around the canal entrance to the Parks Canada Lock as having the capacity to support zebra mussels. The Ontario discovery was at this site as predicted (S. Greenwood, pers. comm.). Zebra mussels had been found in association with the U.S. Army Corp locks in Michigan several years previous.

(b)   Body burdens of fish


Hepatic mixed function oxidase (MFO) activity in white suckers sampled below the power dam on the St. Marys River suggests exposure to chemicals with MFO inducing potential (eg., PAHs and PCBs) (Smith et al. 1990). The condition reflects localized contamination of the sediments, water, and benthic invertebrates.

Most resin and fatty acids were non-detectable in white suckers collected downstream of St. Marys Paper Ltd.; however, the presence of dehydroabletic acid (DHA) indicates the bioaccumulation of resin acids as a result of exposure to the pulp mill effluent (Beak 1996). Resin acid levels in fish tissue are expected to decline now that secondary treatment of mill effluent is in place.

(c)    Dynamics of wildlife populations


Extensive development on both sides of the river has resulted in the degradation and loss of aquatic and terrestrial habitat. The potential effect of this development on birds, mammals, and other animals has not been well documented.

Wildlife populations appear to be stable or increasing (ie., double-crested cormorants) but assessment criteria are required. Ring-billed gull numbers are increasing while common tern populations are decreasing due to a decline in nesting habitat (CWS study of colonial waterbirds nesting on the Great Lakes). In 1999, a portion of the St. Marys River was surveyed for common terns. This survey needs to be completed including black tern numbers in the assessment. Results can be compared with previous counts.

(d)   Body burdens of wildlife


Mercury concentrations in waterfowl breast meat ranged from 0.12-0.46 mg/kg. Aroclor (PCB) was detected in all samples ranging from 0.002- 4.873 mg/kg however there is no criteria for assessment (CWS National Wildlife Research Centre). Eggs from herring gull, black tern, and common tern nests should be analyzed

Fish Tumours and Other Deformities


Liver tumours were identified in white suckers from industrialized sites on the Great Lakes. The prevalence of hepatic neoplasms in excess of 5% should be interpreted as an indicator of environmental degradation. White suckers sampled from the St. Marys River (1985-1990) exhibited tumour prevalence in excess of 9% (N=185). It is likely that hepatic cancers are associated with exposure to chemical contaminants, such as PAHs in contaminated sediments (Baumann et al. 1996). Liver cancers have also been identified in brown bullheads from Munuscong Bay (Smith et al. 1990).

Bird and Animal Deformities or Reproductive Problems


Researchers found three cross-bill common tern chicks out of 120 birds sampled on Lime Island in 1998 (Michigan State University). No other deformities have been noted in wildlife along the St. Marys River; however, a full assessment of bird and animal populations has not been accomplished. Reproductive assessments of herring gulls, black terns, and common terns should be done within the AOC boundary. Deformities should be assessed in common terns inhabiting the St. Marys River

Degradation of Benthos
(a)    Dynamics of benthic populations


Benthic community health on the Michigan side of the AOC appears to be good; however detailed studies are necessary to confirm this. In localized areas on the Ontario side, benthic communities are moderately impaired downstream of the Algoma Slag site to a distance of ~4 km. Impairment also occurs on both sides of the Lake George Channel, within Little Lake George, and at the north end of Lake George. In the vicinity of Bellevue Marine Park, surficial sediment samples collected in Sept., 1995 indicate reduced levels of metals, nutrients, oil and grease, and PAHs compared to levels measured in 1985. Since 1985, sediments in this area have had a relatively diverse benthic fauna and these changes are likely associated with reduced surficial sediment contamination (Kilgour and Morton 1998).

(b)   Body burdens of benthic organisms


Arsenic, mercury, and PCBs tend to bioaccumulate in benthic organisms. Caged mussels placed downstream of the Algoma Slip acquired the highest total PAH levels when compared to low total PAH levels in mussels placed upstream of the Algoma Slip and near the Michigan shore. The effects of these contaminants on benthic organisms are not known. Elevated PAH levels were also noted in mussels exposed to sediments along the Algoma Slag Dump shoreline (Kauss 1999a).

Restriction on Dredging Activities


Contaminated dredged spoils from the Algoma Slip must be disposed of in an approved waste disposal site. Sediments from navigational portions of the following sites have had contaminant levels that exceeded OMOE or U.S. EPA guidelines for the disposal of contaminated sediment: adjacent to the Algoma Slag Dump site along the Ontario shore; both sides of Lake George Channel; Little Lake George; northern half of Lake George; Michigan shore adjacent to Cannelton Industries waste site; the head of the St. Joseph and West Neebish Channels; and Lake Munuscong

Eutrophication and Undesirable Algae


Eutrophication and algae continue to be an issue in the vicinity of the East End Water Pollution Control Plant. Conditions in embayments and in slow moving parts of the river downstream from the WPCP have not been documented. Ultimately this could be alleviated through implementation of secondary treatment at the plant

Restrictions on Drinking Water Consumption or Taste and Odour Problems
(a)    Consumption


Treated water consumption has never been restricted in the AOC. All drinking water obtained from surface waters requires standard treatment. See however, section 7.3 and Action NPSM-10 in section 5.4.

(b)   Taste and odour problems


Taste and odour problems have not been reported.

Beach Closures


E. coli bacterial densities in excess of the PWQO and MWQS occur in Ontario and Michigan waters downstream of storm sewers, combined sewer overflows, industrial outfalls, and the East End WPCP.

Ambient Water Quality


Ambient water quality is not recognized as a beneficial use impairment; however, water quality is to be reflected as a goal in the Stage 2. Water leaving the St. Marys River should be as clean as that coming in.

Degradation of Aesthetics


Recently, both municipalities have been increasing access and development along the waterfront. Further projects should be encouraged as long as this development proceeds within the context of protecting and enhancing the natural environment of the river. Oil slicks downstream of the Algoma Slip and Terminal Basin have occurred; however, no complaints have been received since March 1990. Oily fibrous material mixed with woody debris anecdotally occurs along the Ontario shoreline. Periodic spills have also been reported. Given the extensive use of the river for transport, oil spills from ships or accidents that release chemicals to the river are a threat in the AOC. Aesthetic impairment also exists downstream of the East End Water Pollution Control Plant. Floating scum periodically occurs along the north shore of Sugar Island and the Ontario shoreline of Lake George Channel, downstream from the East End Plant.

Added Cost to Agriculture and Industry


None documented

Degradation of Phytoplankton and Zooplankton


Open water community structure and densities reflect Lake Superior. Phytoplankton and zooplankton populations, however, have not been documented in the nearshore areas of the St. Marys River.

Loss of Fish and WildlifeHabitat


Significant loss of fish and wildlife habitat has occurred as a result of shoreline alteration, industrialization, urbanization, and shipping activities, particularly within and immediately above and below the St. Marys rapids. The unnatural flow regime resulting from the present operation of the Compensating Works -the gated, flow-control structure at the head of the rapids- has resulted in changes to the biological integrity and productive potential of the remaining rapids habitat (Edsall and Gannon 1993). Changes in flow through the gates result in higher flow for a period of time and then reduction back to a guaranteed minimum flow. Rapid fluctuations in water levels when gates are opened further and then closed, as well as timing relative to critical life stages of fish and invertebrates are a concern. A total rapids area of 29.68 ha is separated by an 800 m long concrete berm. Flow over the 6.25 ha rapids area north of the berm is supplied by gate #1 and flow over the 23.43 ha rapids south of the berm is supplied by the other 15 gates. While agreements on water use have guaranteed minimum amounts of water for the rapids it is a significant change in flow that existed pre 1985 that has resulted in both a reduction in size of the rapids habitat and a reduction in discharge over the rapids.

Specific habitats throughout the river are now threatened by colonization of exotic species such as purple loosestrife, Eurasian fish species (ruffe and gobie), and zebra mussels and other exotic invertebrates.