The many strands of WCS Canada's research in the far north in Ontario





One of the reasons that I like fieldwork is that it always involves learning new skills, and often these are obscure skills that I never expected I would need in my career as a biologist.

As an example, this summer I found myself sitting on a grassy riverbank near the shores of James Bay, wearing my full rain gear on a sunny day as protection against the relentless blackflies, learning to splice rope. Splicing rope involves braiding strands of rope together to join two ropes or to form a loop at the end, and is far stronger than tying knots. It turns out that splicing rope is a useful skill for fish research, since it often requires boats, anchors and other rigging where strong connections are needed.

Now that I am back in the office, with the blackfly bites healing and my rain gear in the closet, I am thinking about splicing again in a more metaphorical way. One of the major challenges to decision making in the far north in Ontario is a lack of scientific information. The far north in Ontario is immense – it’s an area the size of France that has no permanent roads and is filled with huge expanses of black spruce, tamarack, muskeg, and waterbodies that are difficult to access. The size and remoteness of the far northern landscape in Ontario is what makes it such a globally important ecosystem, but it also means that there are vast areas that have never been studied by scientists. With our WCS Canada freshwater program, we are trying to fill in these knowledge gaps by splicing together different information-gathering approaches.

The first strand of our program is on-the-ground research. As scientists, we always want on-the-ground data and our freshwater research program helps address specific threats and management concerns for priority fish species. However, in a landscape like the far north in Ontario, we have to acknowledge the limitations. In the more populous southern half of Ontario, various researchers have surveyed freshwater fish communities over 50,000 times. But in the northern half of the province, there have been fewer than 3,000 of these scientific surveys and many are repeat surveys of the easiest locations to access. We estimated that it would cost roughly $450 million in travel expenses alone – never mind the costs for scientific staff and equipment – to get the same scientific coverage for the northern half of Ontario that we have for the southern half. Lacking a half-billion-dollar budget, we need to weave in other approaches to get comprehensive information.

The second strand of our information-gathering program is to use mathematical models and computer simulations to fill scientific data gaps. Based on the scientific data that we do have, we can predict what we would likely find in the areas where we have never sampled. We can also use these tools to identify the most important areas to protect, such as areas that likely shelter many different species. Importantly, models and simulations can also help us prioritize our research and conservation efforts. Since we can’t survey the entire landscape, models can help us identify which sites would be the most valuable to sample, such as areas where we might have the most uncertainty or areas that are facing the biggest threats.

Models and simulations can help fill in many knowledge gaps and help prioritize on-the-ground research efforts. However, it is important to keep observing the landscape, especially because the far north in Ontario is already being impacted by climate change. This leads to the third strand of our information-gathering program, which is to support community-based monitoring, and to support the inclusion of Indigenous traditional knowledge in decision-making.

Indigenous peoples have lived in northern Ontario for millennia. Today, approximately 40,000 Anishnabeg and Cree people live in the far northern reaches in Ontario, and retain deep connections to the wildlife, plants, land, and water in the region. Many places that have never been sampled by scientists are well known to Indigenous peoples, who have long been making observations as they hunt, fish, gather, and travel within their traditional territories. As guardians of their homelands, Indigenous peoples notice when things change -- in the environment and within their communities. They also notice these changes over different time periods, including within their lifetimes as well as in comparison to the experiences of their Elders.
Community-based monitoring is one approach that can track change by providing a framework for Indigenous peoples to document their observations and relationships. When combined with scientific measurements, this approach provides an important opportunity for Indigenous communities to have a more direct role in tracking change on their territories and provide support for decision-making about development and climate change.

These three strands – scientific sampling, computer simulations, and community-based monitoring – woven together provide comprehensive information that none of the strands alone could provide. By splicing approaches together, our freshwater program is able to provide stronger evidence that can help decision-makers make better-informed choices that will benefit the land, water, wildlife, and the future generations of people that will depend on them.

Learn more about our WCS Canada freshwater research program by visiting our new story map, “The Water We Share”.

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