There has been a huge surge of interest among people in the Thunder Bay area in learning about what foods are available in our region and how to harvest them sustainably. In part this has been driven by the efforts of organizations such as Ontario Nature, who have raised awareness about forest foods as a sustainable and nutritionally rich food source. Harvesting workshops often fill up days or weeks in advance, suggesting there is more demand for knowledge than is currently being met. Since areas are so diverse in their vegetation and landscape, and because available forest foods change with the seasons, there are volumes of knowledge that can be shared.
Harvesting forest foods and conserving forests can be done hand in hand. A local business producing birch syrup, for example, has a multi-year lease on a 65-acre birch forest that was once slated to be clear cut. The company produces birch syrup using the same process for maple syrup, conserving the forest since 2006. Harvesting mushrooms also does not hurt production the following year, as harvesting spreads the spores and increases the likelihood of a more abundant harvest the following year.
Forest foods represent an emerging market. Some forest foods are now being sold through grocery stores and restaurants. The number of forest food businesses has also been increasing and diversifying. In addition to seeing jam being made with wild berries like blueberries, fiddleheads, mushrooms, and foraged teas are starting to become more commonplace.
In 2013, the Government of Ontario signed into legislation the Local Food Act, which aims to foster local food economies in Ontario. The Act recognizes forest foods as a local food. Despite this, forest foods are an emerging market and the sector is not well understood by government. The surrounding forests, lakes, and waterways are an important source of food and tend to be overlooked in conversations about land management and “local and sustainable” food systems. Forest foods are generally not recognized by agencies that manage resources, public lands, and water ways, and harvesting food is often second or third on the list next to natural resource management, like timber and mineral extraction.
While there is growing interest in forest harvested foods, there is surprisingly little data on plant populations. There is a need to establish baseline date for monitoring the health of forest foods ecosystems in northwestern Ontario as people become more interested in harvesting foods for personal use and as more entrepreneurs start up businesses selling wild harvested foods. Conservation areas and provincial parks are starting points for measuring the health and viability of forest food ecosystems on public lands. People are allowed to harvest plants for personal consumption in these areas; however conservation reserves and provincial parks are protected from development.
The Ontario Government collects information on the number of large game—moose, deer, and bear—in order to adjust the number of hunting tags (or permits) that are issued during hunting season. In 2014, there was a 13% decline in the moose population around the Thunder Bay area and a much higher drop around Dryden (60%). The overall population of moose was estimated to be 41,000 in northwestern Ontario in 2014. The serious decline in moose led the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry in 2014 to reduce the number of moose tags issued by 22%. 16 Predation, harvest pressure, disease or parasites, thermal stress and births are all factors in the declining populations. Fewer moose and tags has a two-fold economic impact. Many people in and around Thunder Bay hunt moose for food. A decline in moose numbers therefore has an economic impact for households. At the same time, moose hunting is a draw for tourists so a drop in the moose population hurts the local tourism sector.
Lake Superior and other lakes in the area are home to many fish species. Some fish is harvested for personal use. Fish are also harvested commercially and exported mainly to the United States. The two most commonly fished species are Lake Whitefish and Lake Cisco (Herring). Both populations have seen consistently good catch and recruitment numbers over the past five years. 17 Currently there is only one business that makes Great Lakes fish for sale in the local market.