Celebrating Where Rivers Meet the Sea: CRI marks World Wetlands Day

How do we monitor the health of our estuaries?

CRI helps groups and decision-makers better understand and manage estuaries and ecosystem of the Northumberland Strait

Five years ago, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was not able to tell how much sediment was flowing down streams into the Northumberland Strait. Now, groundbreaking research led by scientists within the Canadian Rivers Institute (CRI) provides answers.

“We were in a situation in Prince Edward Island where nobody could tell how much sediment was going down a stream in a year,” says Dr. Michael van den Heuvel, lead researcher on The Northumberland Strait Environmental Monitoring Partnership (NorSt–EMP) and Institute Director of CRI.

“We now know how to monitor sediment flows, and have put together a predictive model  for sediment load that can be applied across the province. Our research will enable us to model all of the sediment coming out of P.E.I. streams and flowing into the Northumberland Strait in the near future.”

The NorSt—EMP project is part of the Canadian Watershed Research Consortium Program funded by the Canadian Water Network. This national initiative, launched in 2010, tackles one of the greatest challenges in environmental monitoring today: how to develop monitoring for cumulative effects assessments.

van den Heuvel notes that the Canadian Watershed Research Consortium was dominated by the CRI. Of the six nodes, three were led by CRI Scientific Directors, and another had heavy CRI involvement.

Cumulative effects assessment is a means of examining the risk to components of the ecosystem that people want to protect because of the social, economic or ecological value. Cumulative impacts assessment turns the normal process of environmental impacts assessment upside down — rather than examining the impacts of a particular activity, it examines the impacts of all past, current and proposed activities on the valued ecosystem component. While the concept has existed for decades, and is enshrined in Canadian legislation, it has not been effectively applied.

The reason, says Dr. Simon Courtenay, a CRI Science Director, Scientific Director of the Canadian Water Network and NorSt—EMP researcher, is few people understand exactly what the term entails.

“When we’re talking about cumulative effects, we’re talking about the sum of all of the activities we’re doing that impact the environment, and we’re talking about the sum over time,” says Courtenay, a professor at the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability at University of Waterloo and Scientific Director of the Canadian Water Network. “So instead of doing affects assessments as a one-off whenever a new project is being proposed by a community sector, what is required is an understanding of the local geography, an understanding the ecosystems of that part of the world, and you need to understand the processes that drive change well enough that you can make real predictions about the impact your project is going to have.”

NorSt—EMP was initiated in 2011 as a partnership between government, industry and non-governmental organizations to build a monitoring framework to support cumulative effects assessment in the Northumberland Strait. The partnership represents exactly the type of applied science in which CRI researchers excel — investigating practical answers to real-world questions posed by end-users. 

“We’re a very applied research institute and we like to work with solutions for end-users. Our aim is to support water resource managers in understanding how aquatic ecosystem such as rivers and estuaries function and knowing the best monitoring frameworks to apply,” says van den Heuvel.

NorSt—EMP stakeholders identified the influx of sediments, contaminants and nutrients from land-based activities that degrade the rivers, estuaries and the coastal regions of the Strait. The study focused on a number of valued ecosystem components in streams and estuaries including native fish species such as brook trout, seagrass meadows in the estuaries, and the invertebrate and fish fauna that live in the seagrass habitat.

van den Heuvel says the research undertaken over the course of the four-year project has advanced the understanding of how cumulative effects assessments can be tackled in a number of ways. In addition to major gains in sediment monitoring, researchers applied new technology in monitoring nutrients such as oxygen and and eelgrass, to identify inputs coming into the estuary.

For both Courtenay and van den Heuvel, equally as satisfying as the scientific advances made through NorSt—EMP are the myriad opportunities the project created for students within the CRI network. The project involved four researchers — all CRI directors or associates — and eight students representing PhD students, masters students and undergraduates.

“The students had the opportunity to interact with a multitude of end-users — probably from 30 different organizations such as the federal government, provincial government, NGOs and industry,” says van den Heuvel. “It’s quite a unique opportunity for students to interact with so many end-users in terms of how their research is regarded and being used.”

“I think the project is cutting edge research, but also, what’s exciting for the students is the chance to be part of something bigger,“ adds Courtenay. “They’re involved in a program that has nodes all across Canada, trying to address the same questions but in different geographies and with different particulars.”

NorSt—EMP researchers are meeting in Moncton this month to discuss next steps and share their findings with DFO officials. They will then join the researchers from all six nodes of the Canadian Watershed Research Consortium Program in Calgary next March to discuss the best ways to take what they’ve learned and continue advancing the research around frameworks for cumulative effects assessments.