Spanish Harbour: Area of Concern (In Recovery)

Spanish Harbour was designated an Area of Concern (AOC) in 1987 under the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Industrial and wastewater contamination and habitat loss from historical logging operations contributed to the degraded water quality and environmental health. Six out of 14 beneficial use impairments (BUIs) were identified, which measure the environmental, human health or economic impact of poor water quality. An additional 3 beneficial uses were deemed “requiring further assessment”, meaning more information was required to determine whether it was impaired.


In 1999, Spanish Harbour was re-designated as an Area of Concern in recovery, which means all actions to restore water quality and ecosystem health are complete and the area now needs time to recover naturally. Monitoring of the area has shown environmental recovery is occurring.

Over the past 30 years, there has been significant progress in restoring the water and environmental quality in the harbour. This includes:

  • improvements to the Town of Espanola’s municipal wastewater treatment, which reduced biological oxygen demand loading by 70%, total phosphorous by 94% and suspended solids by 80% compared to 1990 data
  • compliance to federal and provincial pulp and paper regulations, which has led to improvements in water quality, including the virtual elimination of toxic dioxins and furans from Espanola Mill
  • the return of musky fish back to the river system after a decades-long absence from the Spanish River 
  • reduced exposure of wildlife to harmful chemicals, with a 77% reduced concentration of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in waterbirds and 82% reduction of toxic dioxins and furans compared to 1994 data 

Restoration of beneficial uses

Significant progress has been made to improve environmental conditions in the AOC in Recovery. These beneficial uses are no longer considered “impaired”:

  • degradation of fish and wildlife populations (1999)
  • beach closings (1999)
  • added costs to agriculture and industry (1999)
  • bird or animal deformities or reproduction problems (1999)
  • degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton populations (1999)
  • loss of fish and wildlife habitat (1999)
  • restrictions on dredging activities (2020)

For the remaining beneficial uses, all restoration actions have been completed and time is required for the environment to recover and for environmental quality objectives to be met. These beneficial uses include:

  • restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption
  • degradation of benthos

Recent actions

The overall health of Spanish Harbour has improved.  In 2018, a Status Report was prepared and presented to the community. The results showed that the health of the benthic community (sediment-dwelling organisms) has improved, fish consumption advisories are now similar to other Lake Huron locations and fish-eating waterbirds in the area have some of the lowest levels of contaminants across the Great Lakes. 

Remaining actions

We will continue to work with local and provincial partners to support restoration actions and the environmental monitoring and assessment studies needed to confirm environmental quality objectives are met. Priorities are to:

  • continue implementation of a long-term monitoring plan to track further recovery, with a focus on the benthic community and fish contaminants  


Spanish Harbour has seen significant progress towards restoration since its designation as an AOC. Spanish Harbour will remain an AOC in Recovery until environmental monitoring confirms the remaining beneficial uses have been restored. Once restoration has been confirmed, Spanish Harbour will be removed from the list of Great Lakes AOCs.

Our partners

We partner with other levels of government, non-government groups, Indigenous communities and members of the public. This restoration work requires a large amount of scientific and technical expertise, local knowledge, hard work and the help of:

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