Spanish Harbour: Area of Concern

Spanish Harbour was recognized as an Area of Concern (AOC) in Recovery in 1999. All actions to restore water quality and ecosystem health had been completed, but it was determined that more time was needed for the environment to recover and for environmental quality objectives to be achieved. 

Why was it listed as an Area of Concern?

Spanish Harbour was designated an AOC because a review of available data indicated that water quality and environmental health were severely degraded. Further monitoring showed there were several sources of the impacts on water quality. These included contaminants from local and regional industries, municipal wastewater works, historical log-driving operations, and development activities in the Spanish River basin. The situation resulted in nine of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement’s 14 beneficial use indicators of quality (BUIs) being deemed as impaired.

What has been accomplished?

Through the combined efforts of Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Province of Ontario, local industry, concerned citizens and other partners, major strides have been made on improving water quality and ecosystem health in Spanish Harbour. When Spanish Harbour was recognized as an AOC in Recovery in 1999, six of the AOC’s nine BUIs were considered to have achieved their respective restoration criteria, namely degradation of fish and wildlife populations, bird and animal deformities and reproductive problems, beach closings, added costs to industry and agriculture, degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton populations and loss of fish and wildlife habitat. This left three BUIs (restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption, degradation of benthos and restrictions on dredging activities) which, having completed all restoration actions, more time is required for the environment to recover and for environmental quality objectives to be achieved.

All actions have been completed for fish habitat restoration. Fish populations that were previously degraded are now healthy. For example, after being absent from the Spanish River for decades, a 10-year reintroduction program that started in the mid-1990s has brought the muskellunge (or “muskie”) back to the river system.

All actions have been completed for municipal and industrial wastewater treatment. Major improvements in water quality have been achieved as a result of the implementation of federal pulp and paper regulations and the Province of Ontario’s Municipal Industrial Strategy for Abatement regulations in the mid-1990s.

In anticipation of these regulatory requirements and in an effort to reduce adverse impacts the paper mill in the Town of Espanola -underwent significant upgrades and process changes resulting in the virtual elimination of dioxins and furans entering the environment.

The Town of Espanola’s wastewater treatment plant was upgraded from primary to secondary treatment, which resulted in significantly fewer nutrients, bacteria and organics in the effluent released to the river. For example, biological oxygen demand loading was reduced by 70%, total phosphorous was cut by 94% and suspended solids were reduced by 80% (compared to 1990 data).

Due to the cleaner environment, the health of the benthic community (sediment-dwelling organisms) has improved and the area has among the lowest levels of contaminants in fish-eating colonial waterbird eggs compared to other sites across the Great Lakes. And, fish consumption advisories have become less restrictive over time and, overall, are similar to other Lake Huron locations for many fish species.

What’s left to do?

Monitoring in the Spanish Harbour area has shown environmental recovery is occurring. Remaining environmental issues are due to elevated levels of metals, and dioxins and furans in sediment. While there has been improvement, metals are affecting the health of the benthic community and the bioaccumulation of dioxins and furans in some fish species has led to restrictions on the amount of fish people can eat for certain species.

Consequently, Canada and Ontario will continue periodic monitoring in the area to track further recovery with a focus on the benthic community and fish contaminants.


Efforts in Spanish Harbour are undertaken in a partnership between the Government of Canada, other levels of government and non-government groups, including members of the public. 

Undertaking environmental restoration requires a large amount of scientific and technical expertise, local knowledge and hard work. One agency or group cannot engage in such a large task on their own without the help of others.

Listed below are participants that have contributed to efforts in the Spanish River and Harbour:

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