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Canadian Homes and Cottages

The Pond Professor - by Jack Kohane

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When Rick Salzsauler eyes his pond these days, he smiles with satisfaction. The water sparkles and fish skip across the ripples. “It’s the eye-catching focus of my property, and the envy of my neighbours,” says Salzsauler.

But, there was a time when the shimmering half-acre pond in his front yard was a local eyesore. Salzsauler’s pond was filled with scum, algae and weeds thick enough to blot out most of the life-sustaining light that nourishes natural waterholes. “I thought adding shallow-water fish would revitalize the pond,” he says. “But I soon discovered that’s only part of the solution.”

As he pondered his pond, Salzsauler realized more professional care was needed.

He had heard about Lou Maieron, dubbed ‘The Pond Professor’, who could apparently work miracles with water, and made the call. “He came over to have a look, and immediately devised a plan to restore biological balance to the pond’s ecosystem,” says Salzsauler. “It’s been a long, steady road back to recovery, and now it’s a super spot for the kids to swim and for me to unwind by doing a little fishing after a hard day at the office.”

Maieron, a fisheries biologist by profession for the past 20 years, runs Silver Creek Aquaculture Inc., at his 33-acre forested and spring-fed fish farm in Erin, Ontario. It is one of the most diverse such operations in the province and, at up to 10,000 fins in a dozen pools, offers the most diverse array of species.

A burbling spring on his property is one of the region’s headwaters source points of the Credit River, which eventually cascades into Lake Ontario. Three springs erupt from limestone outcroppings at about 600 to 1,000 gallons combined per minute, providing a constant source of fresh water for his fish operation. It’s an interlacing waterway channel connecting the hatchery, the breeding pond, and a network of grow-out ponds. In one pond, Maieron has carp, koi, bass, walleye and minnows. In the other ponds, Maieron raises rainbow, speckled and brown trout, and even some arctic char.

“My consulting work for clients’ ponds is a more recent sideline to the farm, and happened just by chance,” says Maieron. “Visitors coming here to buy fish to stock their ponds marvelled at how crystal clear my ponds are, even though the waters are filled with all kinds of aquatic life, and the water is recycled up to 10 times through an intricate water supply system. They wanted the same results in their home ponds, and asked for advice.”

Requests for Maieron’s special expertise flooded in - primarily by word of mouth and referrals from clients. The company now markets itself as a one-stop pond shop.

“Biology is a complex science. As a consultant, I am striving to minimize the impact of human activity on ecosystems,” says Maieron. “Habitats like ponds are especially susceptible to what people do, or fail to do, to affect the natural balance.”

He says that over time, ponds tend to accumulate nutrients from many surrounding sources, such as applications of fertilizers and other growth-generating chemicals, particularly when surface waters flow into them. Unchecked, these nutrients amass and the pond will express them in a variety of forms: too much algae, weeds and bulrushes, which predominate and can eventually overcome the pond.

“An over-abundance of aquatic plants, algae and weeds is the most common problem clients bring to me,” says Maieron, “as well as ponds that are emitting foul odours and that are highly discoloured.

“The water’s ability to hold dissolved oxygen decreases as the temperature rises. Submerged aquatic plants, weeds and algae respiring at night further decrease the available oxygen. When oxygen levels drop below four mg/litre, many fish species are vulnerable and can die. So if your pond has a lot of aquatic vegetation, having an aerator operating during night hours compensates for this problem of oxygen depletion by plants,” he says. “This oxygen depletion doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years for a pond environment to become degraded. I offer non-chemical, natural solutions that take longer to reap positive results. Depending on the severity of the problem, it could take years to remedy.” However, Maieron adds that once the pond is balanced, “the results are long lasting.”

Although specializing in larger projects, and relishing the tougher ones that other pond professionals might balk at undertaking, Maieron also provides his expertise to the more diminutive varieties in urban backyards. “You don’t have to be a large-scale project to make all the right eco-friendly decisions,” he says. “If you have a container (any size will do as long as it is water-tight), some rocks and a small aerator, you’re well on your way to creating a water feature.”

If you want to add plants, he suggests a larger container such as a half barrel. It can remain above ground or be sunk into the ground. Line it with extra thick four mil EPDM rubber, which is made for garden ponds, or a pre-formed plastic liner available at garden stores. “Choose your spot carefully,” he says. “A backyard pond needs at least six hours of full sunlight to grow shoreline plants and maintain fish, so avoid a lot of shade trees overhead, which could clog your small pond with leaves each autumn.”

For small ponds, Maieron urges the introduction of several hardy water lilies that produce pocket-sized blooms.

“If you’re really ambitious, dig out an area and use a pond liner, or purchase a pre-formed shape to sink into the ground. There are all sorts of features that can be added, including waterfalls, fish, and even underwater lighting,” he says.

The key to achieving a productive pond, and one that Maieron advocates as the first critical step, is aeration with a surface-type aerator, fountain, air blower or windmill model (ideal where hydro isn’t readily available). “It’s the single best investment a pond owner can make,” he says. “Aeration provides the pond with an abundant supply of oxygen, essential for fish to thrive, and oxygen also helps in the chemical breakdown of many nutrients. A side benefit of this is that aerators constantly keep the water in motion, reducing mosquito propagation and minimizing the chances of West Nile virus penetrating the local environment. Surface aerators also keep the pond surface rippling, which can significantly reduce the amount of light penetration. Less light reaching the bottom results in less submergent vegetation (weeds).”

If nutrients flowing into the pond can be slowed or diverted, pond plant growth is reduced. Dealing with nutrients in the pond, and giving them alternative productive pathways, are the primary means Maieron uses to accomplish plant reduction.

“At Silver Creek Aquaculture, we select solutions that we test ourselves to guarantee they are effective, environmentally friendly and biologically sound processes to counteract pond degradation. We know that algae, weeds, odour and coloured water problems occur when nutrients get shifted into dead-end pathways. A balanced pond has robust populations of fish, frogs, tadpoles, butterflies and dragonflies living in harmony.”

When stocking a pond with fish, Maieron says it’s important to add the proper species in the correct amounts. In natural ponds, fish help keep the leech and insect populations under control. But some species can completely monopolize a pond and are best avoided. They can, he says, create quite a mess. “Goldfish, which breed like rabbits, are a prime example. Bass, if left unchecked, can also monopolize a pond environment to the detriment of other species.”

Although it’s fine to stock a pond with fish in spring or fall, spring is the preferred season.

Additionally, stocking your fishing hole involves more than dumping fish into it, he says. There are two pond types: those with flow (water moving in and out) and those without. “In general, the deeper your pond, the better. But in ponds with flow, depth is not as crucial a factor as in ponds with no flow. Factors such as volume of flow, water temperature and flow duration - seasonal as compared to continual - determine which species and how many fish can be stocked.”

Through photosynthesis, plants consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen during daylight hours, but the process is reversed at night, meaning that as the water warms up, plants in a pond will suck out the available oxygen. Maieron says: “This can have serious consequences for fish in a no-flow pond, especially during the summer months when dissolved oxygen, temperature and vegetation are doing their natural things. As the temperature rises, the water’s ability to maintain a dissolved gas, in this case oxygen, decreases. Fish, being a cold-blooded species, have their metabolic rate regulated by the external temperature. As the water temperature rises, the metabolic rate rises, and their oxygen demand also rises. Bass and trout in particular have difficulty breathing and may perish if the oxygen levels get too low.”

An indigenous assortment of shoreline plants is fundamental to returning a stable balance at the borders between land and water. Some of the most popular species Maieron deploys in his clients’ ponds are yellow- and white-water lilies, marsh marigold, blue- and yellow-flag irises, Cardinal flower, Pickerel weed and Arrowhead. He prefers plant species that flower and don’t spread around much, instead staying near the shoreline.

“The Pond Professor is certainly a fountain of knowledge,” says Edward Long as he gazes at his recuperating 60x100-foot backyard pond in Acton, Ont. “The fish and water plants in my pond were slowly dying. Because of the fragile watershed ecosystem in this region, I didn’t want to resort to chemicals.” After clearing away encroaching bulrushes and removing suffocating algae and weeds, Maieron decided to stock the pond with an additional 50 trout, adding to the trout and bass Long had already introduced.

Once restored to health, ponds don’t require much further maintenance. “But Lou still stops by regularly to ensure everything is going to plan,” says Long. “He has an intelligent approach to establishing and nurturing a natural backyard habitat.”

May/June 2004


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