Protecting Canada’s waters

World Water Day, Great Lakes, Canadian waters, water, Trent University, Michael Fox, ecology, environment, sustainability, climate change, water pollution, invasive species, Partners in Research

Studying the pumpkinseed sunfish led Dr. Michael Fox to research invasive species. (Olaf Nelson, flickr.com)

When it comes to fish, not much has changed for Dr. Michael Fox.

The Trent University ecology professor has always been fascinated by them from watching his childhood pets for hours to putting on a snorkel and exploring the waters as he got older, and now devoting his career to studying them.

In celebration of World Water Day tomorrow (March 22), Fox will be engaging in an online discussion about environmental threats to Canadian waters during a Partners in Research Live Event. The event is geared to Grades 4-9 students, but registration is open to the public.

“I’ve never done a webinar before, so I’m looking forward to it,” says Fox.

Fox highlights four main threats to Canadian waters: development of shorelines, climate change, water pollution, and invasive species. In the last 15 years, he has devoted most of his research to the fourth, studying invasive fish species in particular.

“Invasive species are one of the biggest problems we have in the world, aside from climate change,” says Fox. “They cause disasters, harm native species by taking food from them or eating them, and change the environment. Our Great Lakes have just under 200 invasive species, which cause stress on the ecosystem.”

Jumping carp is an example of one such species in the Great Lakes that was introduced to North America for vegetation control in the U.S. before making their way north.

If carp establish themselves in Ontario waters, they can potentially eat the food supply of native fish and crowd them out of their habitat. Besides drastically changing the natural ecosystem, the decline of Ontario native fish could damage the province’s fishing industry.

“People didn’t realize how dangerous they were when they introduced them during the 1960s and ’70s,” says Fox.

The round goby and the sea lamprey are other invasive species believed to have been introduced to the Great Lakes through ballast water on trading ships. The ballasts would be filled from wherever the ships were departing and then dumped into the lakes when they arrived. Sea lamprey were parasites to salmon and rainbow trout, nearly destroying the species.

There have since been ballast water regulations put in place, but these can be difficult to enforce.

“A lot of the invasive species aren’t entirely successful,” says Fox. “They start growing at a tremendous rate and expand their territory, but they don’t continue to grow forever. Eventually some element of the natural system works against them, and they become part of the system.”

Wading into new research territory

Fox stumbled across invasive species accidentally when he was studying pumpkinseed fish. He discovered they were an invasive species in Europe and spent years researching them abroad as the only North American part of a NATO-founded network looking at invasive species.

“Fish are just like people, they have different personalities,” says Fox. “They have places they inhabit that they know very well, where they know where the food is, where the enemies are. But just like war, they also create invasion fronts, like an army moving to expand their territory.

“I want to know why they would want to move from a place they know to one they don’t. Who is it that moves? Who are these individuals expanding their territory and what sort of traits do they have? And as a result of territory expansion and surrounding themselves with similarly inclined fish, how does this change the original species?”

Fox says the shy-bold continuum seen in humans exists in fish as well, and it’s the bolder ones within a species that unsurprisingly tend to invade.

He examines how these personality types influence the evolution of a species, where the exploratory ones exist in areas outside their natural habitat, while they shy ones stay in their shelters longer.

“When we see differences in a species, are they actually genetic, or are they reactions to the environment they find themselves in?”

Casting a safety net around Canadian waters

In terms of protecting Canadian waters and stemming the flow introduced to them, Fox points to regulations as a good start, such as the Invasive Species Act.

Buffer zones around water bodies—area left undeveloped with healthy forests or shrubs—help curb runoff into the water from development. Ensuring these zones are evenly implemented across the country is one method of protection.

Sediment from plants is one of the biggest causes of water pollution. It washes off the plant into the water, carrying along with it all the nutrients that have often been artificially added to it.

“There are ways to run farms to minimize soil erosion into the water,” says Fox. “It’s a win-win for farmers because the soil that erodes is the top soil, which is their best soil. Awareness is much higher now and a lot of people are doing it. But there’s always a trade-off—if people opt not to use environmentally-friendly methods, it’s usually because of economics or ignorance.”

To register for Wednesday’s Live Event, or to see the events calendar, visit the event schedule.

Tagged: Environment & Sustainability

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