Bringing Natural Back: Creating New Aquatic Habitats in the Port Lands

The Cherry Street Stormwater and Lakefilling Project will bring the Port Lands closer to its natural state as an important habitat for wildlife and aquatic species.

Ashbridge’s Bay Marsh was once the largest wetlands on the Great Lakes, and one of the most extensive freshwater coastal wetlands in Eastern North America. While visiting Ashbridge’s Bay Marsh in 1794, Elizabeth Simcoe, British diarist and artist, described it as a “low lands covered with rushes abounding with wild ducks and swamp black birds with red wings.” Pollution began emptying into the lake and affecting the native fish populations. By 1922, the marsh had been filled in to create more than 200 hectares of land, and plans to create a thriving industrial community and shipping hub were well under way. Read more on this area’s industrial past here.

Today, the Port Lands are transforming again. This time the design will support sustainability and revive the natural characteristics of the area. Developing the natural habitat around Essroc Quay through the Cherry Street Lakefilling project will provide habitat diversity, maintain and restore a diverse native fish community and provide recreational opportunities along the water’s edge.

And that’s just part of an overall design that will create a healthy natural ecosystem in an urban context. Check out these displays from our July 2018 community consultation to see how we’ll engineer this urban ecosystem and make new homes for everything from butterflies to foxes.

Cherry Street Lakefilling

This project is one of several components of the larger Port Lands Flood Protection project. Find a breakdown of the overall project here.

By extending the area located around Essroc Quay, we’re creating new open spaces for a myriad of aquatic species. We are working closely with Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), the City of Toronto and other stakeholders to identify what is required to create sustainable, thriving habitats for fish and other aquatic species.


Aquatic species depend on lush vegetation for food and shelter. Vegetation also protects the shoreline from erosion caused by flooding and water currents.

Unfortunately, the yearly dredging of silt from the bottom of the Don River and Keating Channel has stunted vegetation growth in the local habitat. Debris maintenance along the Keating Channel has also disturbed the area’s aquatic habitat, impairing the health of the ecosystem and causing a loss in fish diversity. This project will strengthen the local habitat by planting vegetation to promote the regrowth of a healthy, robust aquatic ecosystem.


In winter 2019, construction crews started preparing salvaged trees to place in the new habitat coves they are creating.

Creating aquatic habitat also means creating space for fish to hide while they eat, rest from migration and lay their eggs. A diversity of shelters such as vegetation and shallow water areas provides the fish an appropriate environment to survive.

Our design includes shallow rock shoal shelters and two coves located on the north and west embankment of Keating Channel. These shelters will improve the habitat around Essroc Quay, creating a sloped shoreline with shallow pockets of water and additional shelters for fish.

The rocky shore in this rendering is an example of the type of sloped shoreline that would provide shelter for fish.

Fish Diversity

TRCA has noted that the Keating Channel has some of the lowest fish diversity in Toronto’s Inner Harbour. Developing the area’s habitat will help restore the fish populations. It’s important fish find a quality habitat in the Keating channel since it is an important migration corridor between Lake Ontario and the Don River. This diversity will be able to tell us how healthy the ecosystem is.

This aerial photo taken in September 2018 shows the shape of future habitat coves already forming as we create the new shoreline around Essroc Quay. Click here for up to date info about construction.

Waterfront Toronto’s commitment to restoring natural habitats

As part of our mandate, we’re committed to restoring the health of aquatic habitats in all projects we undertake along the water’s edge. To achieve this objective, we have been a supporting member of Aquatic Habitat Toronto (AHT) since its formation. This partnership helps us ensure that waterfront projects incorporate improvements to aquatic habitats and to conduct studies on the health of the aquatic ecosystems on the lakefront.

We’ve made some great progress thanks to this partnership. To date, we’ve constructed over 11 hectares of aquatic habitat through numerous projects, including our WaveDecks, the Portland Slip, as well as Mimico and Port Union waterfront parks. These projects have had a significant positive impact on aquatic communities. Monitoring by AHT demonstrated that the number of fish species caught in the Toronto inner harbour increased from five to 17 from 2001 to 2009. There are also greater numbers of key fish species including the emerald shiner, northern pike and round whitefish.

For more information about these and other economic, social and environmental goals, read our 2015-2017 Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability Report here.