Jeff Howard: water keeper

As told to Jim MacInnis

My whole life I’ve watched the water. I love solid ground – I hike, ski and even race mountain bikes in the summer – but I live near Big Bay Point in Innisfil, which juts sharply out into Lake Simcoe, so it’s the water to which I’m drawn.

In September I put the finishing touches on a stream monitoring project I started when I was 15 (I’m 17 now). I wanted to see what effects farms and communities have on freshwater streams, and also to determine which pollutants are flowing into Lake Simcoe. For two years I headed out to Sandy Cove Creek every couple of days to collect data about species in the stream – if you know what’s living where, you can determine the health of the waterway. For instance, if you find caddisflies, that probably means the stream is healthy, whereas the presence of sowbugs probably means the opposite. Finding the insects is the fun part. Every 40 metres I set up a small station with a special net and then did what’s called a “kick and sweep,” which you do by standing in one area and literally trying to kick up as much sediment as you can. Then you count the insects and record your data. I concluded that the stream was really healthy.

Good-news stories can take a bit of work. When I was 14, I was taking pictures of loons around the Tiffin boat launch in Barrie and I spotted one that was in pretty bad shape. It was entangled in fishing line and had lures caught in its mouth. I tracked down a wildlife rehabilitation technician from the Midland branch of the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA), and a group of us went into the water at night armed with flashlights, nets and cameras. We were able to retrieve the loon and took it to the OSPCA where it was X-rayed. I was worried that it might have ingested a lead sinker, which is a little weight that fishermen use on their lines, and practically a death sentence for birds. Thankfully it was given a clean bill of health, and we released it by the lake the same night.

I’m a member of a handful of conservation groups, including the Six Mile Lake Conservationists Club, Kids for Turtles Environmental Education, Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF) and Brereton Field Naturalists Club (BFNC), through which I started the Get the Lead Out program. It was the loon that gave me the idea. With the help of my family and BFNC, I set up a booth where local fishermen could come and exchange their lead sinkers for safer tackle. I’ve done it for two years and it’s been a huge success.

I think most people really like the idea of fishing responsibly. In June 2007 the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority (LSRCA) presented me with the Youth Education Award for the Get the Lead Out program. It was the coolest thing. And it didn’t stop there. In 2008 CWF presented me with the Youth Conservation Achievement Award for the bird rescues and Get the Lead Out, and I received the LSRCA Water Conservation Award for my streammonitoring work – and all of this was for stuff I would have done anyway.

Eventually I’d like to get a job with a group like LRSCA or maybe Fisheries and Oceans Canada. But I don’t know where I’ll end up. I only just got my driver’s licence.