Research Needs

Data Gaps and Research Needs

In addition to compiling and summarizing the most recent research available on the 11 ecosystem health indicators, another primary goal of the State of the Bay program is to identify and present data gaps and research needs for eastern Georgian Bay. This is an important step in directing future research in order to help improve our understanding of ecosystem health.

The list below has been compiled with a great deal of input from multiple organizations, agencies, First Nations representatives, and the interested public. The list is continuously updated to reflect current research and monitoring needs.

Please contact David Bywater, Director of Lands and Waters Programs, ([email protected], 705-774-0978) about research and monitoring opportunities.

Common Research Needs

Several overarching science and monitoring needs are applicable to multiple indicators.

  • Focus monitoring efforts into subregions as a more efficient and effective way of gathering information along a variety of gradients (e.g., nearshore to offshore, south to north). Urban centres and locations where nearshore nutrient concerns might be expected (e.g., Severn Sound, Parry Sound, Shawanaga River, Magnetawan River, French River) should be the first focus to understand and monitor concerns.
  • Integrate water quality, lower food web, and fish datasets. In areas with rich datasets (e.g., Severn Sound) there is an opportunity to harmonize existing data and understand linkages from water quality through to the fish community. Support and cooperation from all levels of government is needed to integrate and build datasets in both data rich and data poor areas. One way to facilitate the integration and harmonization of various datasets could be to create a central portal managed by one agency or organization, housing links to open-source datasets. Resource managers and researchers would then have easy access to multiple datasets from one central repository.
  • Explore the potential to do year-round monitoring (November-April included). As winter weather is changing from historic trends and the ice-free season is growing longer, year-round monitoring is becoming a possibility. In addition, enhanced monitoring should also include extreme weather-related episodic events (during and after). A question in this regard is whether possibly higher frequency of high-wind erosional events and large tributary run-off events during late fall through early spring disproportionally effects nutrient loading to the Bay. While increasing sampling would be resource intensive, there may be opportunities for partnerships with local organizations, universities, and colleges to support increased monitoring. The use of autonomous sampling should also be explored.
  • Determine the desirable state of productivity in the open lake and embayments. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement focuses on desirable trophic levels for the open waters of the lake. However, long-term declines in nutrient inputs and the proliferation of invasive dreissenid mussels have completely shifted the aquatic ecosystem, such that some nearshore parts of the lake could suffer from enriched productivity (and nuisance Cladophora, harmful algal blooms) while the offshore, open-water of the lake could suffer from nutrient levels low enough that fish production could be below desirable levels.
  • Investigate what nearshore areas represent areas of resiliency (to climate change, energy shifts, invasive species, trophic changes), high ecological value, and what the associated biological, physical, and chemical factors are. For example, there are areas in eastern Georgian Bay with and without invasive mussels. These areas represent different functional ecologies, warranting further study.

Water Quality

  • Improve understanding of nutrients (sources, sinks, pathways, and loadings) and nutrient-related issues (nuisance and harmful algal blooms) in the nearshore and offshore. Improve understanding of physical and biological processes that move nutrients/energy horizontally (between nearshore and offshore) and vertically (between benthic and pelagic zones), with consideration of the influence of invasive species (e.g., mussels, round gobies) and nearshore algal growth (e.g., Cladophora and other filamentous green algae, cyanobacteria, Chara, periphyton).
  • Examine possible effects of high water levels on nutrient-phosphorus loading to the Bay and impacts on shoreline water quality in high fetch regions of shoreline due to erosion and other shoreline disruptions (e.g., impacts on septic systems).
  • Tributary discharge data reflective of runoff to the Bay is needed for a representative suite of tributaries along eastern and northern Georgian Bay to support the analysis of nutrient loading and climate-related hydrologic changes affecting water quality. Investments should be made to reactivate gauging stations which have historical data, and install additional stations based on a needs assessment.
  • Explore the causal relationships accounting for patterns of variability in phosphorus and water quality (tributary loading, exposure, circulation, and flushing, thermal regime, anthropogenic development, invasive species).
  • Consider deploying buoys with high frequency sensor arrays (temperature, oxygen, algae pigments (chlorophyll a, phycocyanin) photosynthetically active radiation, turbidity, conductivity, etc.) in different embayments on a rotating basis to obtain detailed information on lake processes.
  • Monitor changes to nearshore nutrients following the Parry Sound 33 forest fire.
  • Determine nutrient conditions and dynamics in the shallow nearshore (i.e., <3 m depth) in terms of nutrient variability, algae growth (both phytoplankton and periphyton), and benthic invertebrates. Anecdotal evidence exists of increased productivity in this zone, in some areas resulting in heavy growth on rocks and built structures. It is unclear whether this periphyton production is the result of point source nutrient loading like septic runoff and greywater discharge, or a lack of invertebrate grazers.
  • For future monitoring of algal blooms along eastern Georgian Bay, consider partnering with Caren Binding (ECCC) to use satellite images to track the intensity and duration of blooms in combination with pending monitoring by Georgian Bay Forevers’ UAV in order to provide a more comprehensive overview of bloom dynamics and a chance to link these to external (especially climate) drivers.
  • Explore phosphorus speciation in Georgian Bay (SRP vs. TP, inorganic vs organic TP). Determine how soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP) changes in different watersheds. McMaster University and the University of Toronto have existing datasets to begin an analysis of this kind.
  • Develop or adopt standardized sampling and analytical methods for measuring and characterizing microplastics and microfibers, as well as investigating sources, transport, and fate. As methods are being developed, preliminary monitoring should be conducted to provide background information on the types and amounts of microplastics found in areas of the lake near and away from human activity.

Lower Food Web

  • Establish regular, detailed monitoring programs to measure and help understand lower food web productivity and trophic interactions. Include under-sampled species and habitat types (e.g., rocky substrates, depositional areas).
  • In the new regime of dreissenid mussel proliferation, assess seasonal phytoplankton production, especially spring and fall bloom conditions and possible implications for zooplankton populations and larval fish food supply at locations throughout eastern Georgian Bay. Contrast Georgian Bay conditions with the North Channel, where dreissenid mussels are relatively rare.
  • Track late summer blue-green algae blooms in a variety of locations in order to better understand causes of dominance in some locations and not others.
  • Investigate the drivers of recent shifts in zooplankton community structure (e.g., roles of Bythotrephes and Leptodora, top-down versus bottom-up mechanisms) including a detailed examination of trophic interactions. Food preferences of the dominant zooplankton need to be investigated, and whether they are able to tolerate shifting diets.
  • Studies are required to better characterize the composition and spatial differences in benthic invertebrate communities across Georgian Bay. Monitoring should include protocols like that of the GLNPO and CABIN, including nearshore and hard substrates in addition to soft substrates, to identify temporal and spatial trends in the benthic community. Linkages between invertebrate communities and a perceived increase in nearshore attached algae should be investigated.
  • Improve understanding of the ecology of benthic communities, with emphasis on the role of periphyton in nutrient cycling and as a source of secondary benthic production.
  • Investigate distribution of Diporeia populations and enhance sampling at several depth intervals (e.g., <30m, 31-50m, 51-90m, >90m). To date, Diporeia have not been consistently sampled in Georgian Bay which has resulted in a limited ability to describe trends through time and understand impacts on the food web due to population changes.
  • Update status on distribution, spread, and abundance/density of dreissenids. Improve understanding of the influence of invasive mussels on phosphorus cycling, their role in nearshore algae growth (Cladophora and other filamentous green algae, and cyanobacteria), reasons for regional variations in abundance (e.g., eastern Georgian Bay populations are different than other Great Lakes locations), and possible mitigation efforts.
  • Improve understanding of spiny water flea abundance, spread, and food web impacts.
  • Develop and monitor more nearshore to offshore transects, and place more emphasis on the vertical dimension of productivity.

Fish Communities

  • Expand spatial scope of embayment and inshore prey fish composition and distribution through acoustic surveys – supplement USGS annual acoustic and mid-water trawls in offshore waters.
  • Explore how fish production potential has changed as a result of shifts in energy cycling/pathways. What are the implications for fisheries and species diversity?
  • Investigate the effects of shoreline development on nearshore cobble and rubble spawning habitat for smallmouth bass, as well as critical coastal wetland spawning and nursery habitats supporting Esocids.
  • Improve understanding around the attributes that Shawanaga River exhibits in order to support such a robust spawning population of walleye, compared to other areas in Georgian Bay.
  • Improve understanding of the impacts of invasive species and changes in the prey community on lake trout populations.
  • Acquire fine scale substrate composition and quality at identified critical spawning reefs and shoals utilized by lake trout and lake whitefish. Determine key attributes of spawning habitat that have been associated with successful natural reproduction.
  • Continue to expand monitoring of nearshore fish community composition and dynamics using provincially developed Broadscale Monitoring survey design.
  • Conduct basin wide areal creel surveys to determine extent of harvest directed at native and naturalized fish species which would address the need to determine the relative importance of harvest compared to ecological change on sport fish abundance.
  • Evaluate the influence of fluctuating water levels, river flow, substrate type, and water temperature on spawning beds and recruitment success. In particular, build on the work that was initiated in Severn Sound at the Bayview Dam walleye spawning shoal (Severn River) by SSEA, MNRF, and Parks Canada.
  • Describe phenotypic and genetic diversity of native coregonines and determine spawning habitat.
  • Establish radio-telemetry arrays around Georgian Bay as part of the GLATOS network to better understand migratory fish movement.
  • Assess streams and estuaries to determine aquatic habitat significance, stressors (including invasive species), and limitations to riverine species’ spawning and migration.
  • Monitor locations where spawning bed enhancement work has been undertaken in order to evaluate success and identify the need for additional work.
  • Expand monitoring of round goby abundance and distribution. Investigate the effects of round goby on the food web and the energy shunt between the nearshore and offshore system; contrast among habitat types (east Georgian Bay – west Georgian Bay; with mussels – without mussels; hard substrate – soft; etc.).

Coastal Wetlands

  • Monitor coastal wetlands to assess coastal wetland water quality, species diversity, and the impact of human activities and water level fluctuations. Consider working with the McMaster University Coastal Wetland Research Group to identify ~10 wetlands for long term monitoring as there is a need for continuity given climate change and water level variation.
  • A sustainable, reliable source for coastal wetland cover information. NASA satellite imagery is not easy to obtain in Canada and is very costly. American scientists can access this data for free in the U.S., but due to a lack of sharing agreement, Canadian researchers must purchase the data. In order to monitor and report on coastal wetlands over the long term, as they relate to natural variation in water levels, it is crucial to determine a reliable, accessible long-term data source.
  • Greater involvement in citizen science, for example Bird Studies Canada’s Marsh Monitoring Program, to supplement coastal wetlands related data collection. If citizen science data are to be used in future State of the Bay reports, more advertising and outreach will be required to engage a larger number of citizens.
  • Determine conservation methods to prevent the establishment of invasive vegetation (phragmites) on sandy beaches and coastal wetlands.

Landscape Biodiversity

  • The criteria used in the CWS-ON Biodiversity Atlas to assess and map habitat conditions does not take into consideration rock barrens. Given that rock barrens are a significant habitat type along eastern and northern Georgian Bay, this represents an important gap.
  • The bird data in the CWS-ON Biodiversity Atlas for the boreal hardwood transition is not comprehensive. Ideas are needed to determine how to improve this and how to make various citizen science programs work for this area (Breeding Bird Survey, atlas, etc.).
  • The CWS-ON Biodiversity Atlas human influence analysis considers built up/developed areas, but does not capture much of the Georgian Bay seasonal ‘footprint’ such as: cottages, camps, and other housing areas, particularly along shorelines and within littoral areas of Georgian Bay. An example of a potential gap of human influence data may be the mouth of the Key River where there is a dense collection of camps and cottages and the accompanying boat traffic that comes with this ‘roadless’ environment. Approaches are needed to assess areas like this.
  • The human influence layer of the CWS-ON Biodiversity Atlas does not include boat channels. Because roads are in fact not densely located in much of the archipelago landscape, boating is the main transportation method for accessing waterways, bays, and islands. How this type of human disturbance pattern affects the integrity of the biodiversity is not well understood, and should likely be included in a human disturbance analysis of eastern and northern Georgian Bay.
  • Undertake studies to gather boat traffic data specifically for Georgian Bay or eastern Georgian Bay.
  • Explore cumulative effects of multiple factors in eastern Georgian Bay, as is noted in How Much Disturbance is Too Much? (EC, 2014, p.39): “Overall, what is missing with respect to edge effects to forests in the context of the southern Canadian Shield is research on the cumulative effects of cottage developments, and associated infrastructure, on plant communities and wildlife species on a landscape scale”.
banner photo of climate change images.

Climate Change

  • Improve and increase the spatial coverage of weather monitoring on Georgian Bay by installing more instrumentation. Currently, there are two buoy stations on Georgian Bay managed by ECCC (Georgian Bay and south Georgian Bay) that monitor wind, waves, atmospheric pressure, air, and water temperature, and five land-based weather stations relevant for eastern Georgian Bay (Killarney, Parry Sound, Western Islands (offshore), Muskoka (inland), and Midland). Hourly wind speed and direction are particularly important datasets to maintain and improve coverage for. Meteorological data of this kind informs the modelling and reporting of features (e.g., thermal stratification) and drivers (e.g., exposure, short term water level fluctuation) that contribute to gradients in water quality in eastern Georgian Bay.
  • For areas that have not yet been modelled, develop climate projections using appropriately bias-corrected Regional Climate Models that take lake processes into account. This modelling relies on high frequency local climate monitoring stations.
  • Water temperature and ice cover data is needed at the scale of Georgian Bay. These data are presently analysed and presented on a Lake Huron scale. Coordinate with SSEA to include their long-term datasets. Explore the possibility of monitoring additional ice metrics (e.g., ice thickness, condition/quality, ice on and off dates).
  • Explore the use of physical ecological models to anticipate and interpret climate system level changes on lake ecology. Models should encompass physical limnology, water chemistry, and lower food web.
  • Study how changes in precipitation/runoff will affect water quality. Collect baseline data on stormwater discharge in urban areas and predict and model climate change impacts using climate projections.
  • Improve understanding of how chemical contaminants are potentially influenced by climate change factors such as changes to air and water circulation, food web interactions, flooding events, peak run-off events, and wind/wave action. Consider assessing the risk from legacy sites first (e.g., Nobel, Britt/Still River, Parry Sound).

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