Road trip to Kingston? Enjoying food from the waterbody we’re so focused on protecting? If there was a way to distract us, this was it. We were all pretty excited about Eating Lake Ontario. Even the vegetarians amongst us were willing to give it a try just to experience this (unfortunately) rare opportunity.
Here are a few thoughts from Waterkeeper's team following the first Eating Lake Ontario event held in Kingston at Dianne's Fish Shack.
Donna Wawzonek – Sponsorship and Grants Coordinator
When I told my friends I was going to an event called Eating Lake Ontario, I received some predictable responses. “How are they preparing the tires?” and “Is it a plot to take out Waterkeeper in one meal?”
I was much more excited about the meal and what I could learn.
Chef Paul Dubeau, inspired by his family fish fries in northern Ontario, gave us a memorable 3-course meal that was both homey and refined. What a treat!
The evening was also an opportunity to learn about my co-workers’ personal relationships to fishing and their memories of family fishing trips. Often in the Waterkeeper office, we talk about stormwater, microplastics, and nuclear facilities. At dinner we shared stories of wading through muddy waters, time with our dads, and the joys of our first catches.
Eating Lake Ontario was a reminder of the joy that our lake brings us and what we work to protect. Not just clean water, but something deeply meaningful and personal: our connections to our family, friends, community and our water.
Kelly Schnurr – Gala Front of House and Vendor Coordinator
It was a delicious and informative evening at Dianne's Fish Shack. When asked "how many people have caught and eaten their own fish," most of the room raised their hands proudly. When asked "how many people in the room have fished and eaten their catch from Lake Ontario," most of those hands came down.
These questions came after we enjoyed a three-course meal of yellow perch and walleye from Lake Ontario. My response to the question played on my mind. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt, shame and sadness for the collective judgement of our beautiful waterfront, all the while I lived less than 100 feet from its shoreline.
I am that person, who lived a fast-paced life in the city, not thinking twice about how often I shower, run the tap or flush. And quite frankly, I didn't really care where it ended up. Out of sight, out of mind.
Well, now as I write this with a belly full of Lake Ontario fish, and after hearing the Ministry of Natural Resources’ Colin Lake speak about the biology of our Great Lakes, I feel hopeful. "When you look at Lake Ontario as a food source, your relationship with the lake changes."
Thank you, Colin. Thank you, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. Thank you, Dianne's Fish Shack.
Claire Lawson – Water Literacy Coordinator
Having lived in Sweden, Belgium, and across Canada in Halifax, Vancouver, Kingston, and now in Toronto, I have come to embrace local pride.
For me, pride is one of the common threads among people. In all of the places I have lived, I have found that there is no better way to experience local pride than when people serve (and are served) food from their very own backyards.
This shared feeling of pride for local food captures my experience at Eating Lake Ontario, an event hosted by the Water Access Group.
I was proud to travel to Kingston in support of local fisheries; I was proud to meet the local water ambassadors working hard to reconnect people like me to their lake; and I was proud to finally eat local yellow perch, deliciously prepared by Dianne’s Fish Shack.
But above all, I was proud to be in a room filled with people brought together for a common local cause.
Pride for local foods is a common thread that binds us together. No matter where you are in the world, you will find that people take pride in supporting locally-sourced foods, and some will even ask for seconds.
Amy Wilford – Operations Coordinator
My heart started beating – fast. I suddenly became quiet as a plank of Lake Ontario yellow perch was placed before me. I haven’t eaten a bite of fish in 7 years – my entire adult life. Not because I believe Lake Ontario’s fish are contaminated or harmful to my health, as people tend to think. But rather, because I’ve been a vegetarian since I turned 19.
Since an age when I was able to make conscious decisions about the food I chose to consume, fish has never been a part of my equation. Naturally, I never even thought about the fact that the fish people were consuming all around me wasn’t coming from the body of water only minutes away.
Just like the food we eat is meant to sustain us, we should be able to sustain the source of our food. This means knowing where our food comes from, how it makes our way to our plate, as well as the environmental and societal impacts of its harvest.
That’s just what Eating Lake Ontario was all about. Serving sustainably sourced fish, from local commercial fisheries, pulled right from Lake Ontario, and served up fresh on our plates.
In the end I ate the fish (and it was tasty). While it’s not something I plan on doing again, I can proudly say that my first and only taste of fish in my adult life was locally and sustainably sourced from the Great Lake right outside my window.
Tristan Willis – Public Interest Articling Fellow
On Wednesday I had a thick fillet of Lake Ontario walleye for dinner. I rarely eat fish and, if I hadn’t known beforehand, I would have guessed that the fillet on my plate could have come from anywhere.
All I could discern was that the flesh was whitish, tender and tasty. It occurred to me that these days, when we eat fish, it literally can come from almost anywhere. Often, the fish on the menu travels halfway around the world before landing on a plate.
There was something special about knowing the fillet on my plate came from the lake at the end of the road. It’s sad to think how many restaurants overlook the lake without ever cooking fish from it.
Brigitte Dreger-Smylie – Swim Guide Affiliates Coordinator
Last week, I ate my first piece of fish in seven years.
When I was young, fish was my favourite food. I ate salmon nearly every night, cooking it from an old fish lodge recipe my dad spent five years haggling from a chef in Yellowknife to give him. As I grew older, however, I became more environmentally inclined, and diving deeper into the commercial fishing industry took away the pleasure I used to feel when I ate fish. So I stopped eating it.
Throughout these seven years, I told people why I didn’t eat fish: it was the last animal we hunted on a grand scale; the food miles tacked onto every piece of fish was deplorable; and bycatch, food waste, and dwindling populations were something I couldn’t reconcile.
At some point, I believe these became only words. I didn’t feel the same rush of passion when I spoke them as I once did. They felt rehearsed, a sort of rushed annoyance at the inevitable question, why don’t you eat fish?
I decided, when I was invited to the event at Dianne’s in Kingston, that I would eat fish. I don’t exactly know why – it just felt like something I should do.Now don’t mishear me – there weren’t any fireworks when I ate the fish. The meal was delicious, it really was – but a part of me thought something magnificent (or terrible) would happen when I took a bite. It didn’t.
I’ll tell you something, though. My life didn’t end when I challenged the boundaries of what “vegetarian” meant. I think I finally reconciled the fact that I could eat a piece of fish and it could be environmentally friendly. It could be caught, processed, and cooked right here, not only in Canada, but also in my own watershed.
And that was something to think about. Why is it cheaper to catch a fish in Canada, process it in Asia, and send it back to North America? Why do we accept that the fish we eat comes from across the world instead of our own plentiful harvest at our toes? And why does being a vegetarian mean belonging to a club that you have to follow certain rules to belong to, instead of for our own beliefs and values?
In the end, I’m grateful to LOW and Dianne’s for helping me reconcile my feelings about eating fish – and for helping me remember why I stopped eating it in the first place. I hope we all think about the choices we make everyday, and challenge the things we do out of habit. I hope that you can ask yourself why you do what you do, and how you can stay open to positive environmental change.
Ruby Pajares – Communications Coordinator
I eat fish regularly. So leading up to Eating Lake Ontario, I wasn't expecting to encounter something momentous like a few others on our team. But eating locally-sourced food is important to me and I was looking forward to what I would learn.
To help make decision-making easier when it comes to eating fish, I was happy to see the MNR’s Colin Lake highlight Ontario’s fish consumption guide.
If you’ve ever been concerned about contaminant levels in Ontario’s fish, or if you’ve ever asked, “Can I eat fish from Lake Ontario?” – the short answer: Yes, you can. But please flip through the Guide to Eating Ontario’s Fish first. The province updates the guide annually and also have it available as an interactive map.
If you are going to look up contaminant levels in Ontario fish, remember this is purely a guide. As you’ll find in the advisories: "Fish consumption advice is based on a combination of fish size, species and location... The advisory tables provide fish consumption advice based on the level of contaminants found in fish according to their location, species and length."
As a general rule of thumb, no matter where you live, you should always 1) aim to know where your food comes from, and 2) follow the consumption guidelines.
When you’re considering Lake Ontario’s fish, Colin recommended yellow perch, brown bullhead, and walleye for flavour and sustainability. Since yellow perch and walleye were on the menu at Eating Lake Ontario, I’d say those were pretty good recommendations!
Chloe Cross – Outreach Coordinator
Last Wednesday, the Waterkeeper team packed their overnight bags and headed to Kingston, Ontario. For most, this would be the first time trying fish from Lake Ontario. For some, it would be the first time trying fish in over 7 years.
We drove 3 hours to try fish from a lake that is a 10 minute walk from our office. But, it’s likely the fish had a longer journey. In a society that values convenience – it seems oddly inconvenient that eating fish sourced from the Philippines is more cost efficient than from our own backyard.
As a fish-eater myself, the meal (although delicious), wasn’t as much of a ground-breaking moment for me, than was the information provided. How is it, that Lake Erie – known for its algae problem and being a seemingly “dead lake” can provide millions of pounds of fish? Whereas, Lake Ontario’s commercial fishing provides a mere few thousand.
If you want to eat a fish from Lake Ontario – other than catching it yourself, where would you buy it? No one in the room other than the chef knew where to purchase it from. To make matters worse, the fish likely had to travel to Lake Erie to get packaged, and then was brought back. A longer journey than the 3 hours we took from Toronto.
This wasn’t my first time trying fish sourced from the Great Lakes. However, it was the first time that I truly understood the need for not only a swimmable and drinkable future but how important it is for a fishable one too.
Mark Mattson – Waterkeeper & President
I have been catching and eating fish in the Kingston area for my entire life. I am one of the lucky ones who knows first-hand what the area is like when waters are cleaner and there is habitat for fish and plants.
I have been waiting for a night like this since we started Waterkeeper 15 years ago – and when it finally came, I couldn’t attend. Reading the staff’s stories, it makes me sad once again that changes to the Fisheries Act in 2012 gutted our most powerful environmental law. Today’s Fisheries Act only protects fish of “value.” And when a lake – like Lake Ontario – is so degraded that there is no commercial fishery left, few people believe its fish have “value.” Neglect grows. The lake declines even further.
A single dinner – and the sold-out enthusiasm of the community – send a signal that our fish do have value. That we want our fishery back. That a fishable future is possible, even on Lake Ontario.
Lake Ontario Waterkeeper was very proud and grateful to be part of the sold-out Eating Lake Ontario event. Thank you to Dianne’s Fish Shack and the Water Access Group for providing this rare opportunity. With the Swim Drink Fish community growing, we know we are inching closer to the day when eating from our Great Lake will once again be the norm.
Really engaged crowd at Dianne's Fish Shack. The Ministry of the Environment's Colin Lake informs sold-out Eating Lake Ontario event of what's happening to Lake Ontario. "Now that we've eaten the fish, can we eat the fish? Yes. But regardless of where you live, you should always follow the consumption guidelines. Know where you're food comes from." #LakeOntario #GreatLakes #ygkfood #yumgk #swimdrinkfish