The Harkness Laboratory of Fisheries Research began in 1936 as the Ontario Fisheries Research Laboratory of the Department of Zoology, University of Toronto.
In the first 25 years of operation, University of Toronto faculty and students conducted research on a wide range of areas in aquatic ecology from parasitology and aquatic entomology through to fisheries monitoring and population ecology. In 1961, the lab was re-dedicated as the Harkness Laboratory of Fisheries Research when the University of Toronto transferred responsibility to the then Ontario Department of Lands and Forests (now Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources & Forestry).
The name of the station is in honour of W.K.J. Harkness, a faculty member at the University of Toronto who was the Director of the Ontario Fisheries Research Laboratory as well as the station site at Lake Opeongo at the time. In the 1950's Bill Harkness left the University of Toronto to supervise the Fish and Wildlife Branch of the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests. He was instrumental in developing a research program in Ontario on fish and wildlife ecology.
Research based at Harkness now involves a number of faculty and students from different universities along with scientists and research staff from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources & Forestry.