Federal Government, Canadian Rivers Institute and Canadians team up to assess river health

It’s Canadian Environment Week, an annual celebration of Canadian citizens’ ongoing efforts to help preserve, protect and restore our environment.  The Canadian Rivers Institute (CRI) has helped thousands of Canadians become citizen scientists, working across the country to become stewards of their local rivers and lakes.

This summer and fall alone, more than 150 students, water professionals and community volunteers from across the country are coming together are learn how to assess the health of our waterways. They will be completing the field-training component of the Canadian Aquatic Biomonitoring Network (CABIN) protocol, a nationally standardized approach to assessing river health using aquatic invertebrates, which was developed by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) in 2006.

CRI has been a partner in the development and delivery of CABIN since its early days. CRI Science Directors and Associates Drs. Donald Baird and Wendy Monk (CRI-UNB) and David Armanini (CRI-Milan, Italy) have developed a model of Atlantic river health using data collected by the CABIN network, including federal and provincial governments and citizen scientists, to support river assessment across the region. The online training and delivery of the program was co-developed by CRI Science Director Dr. Michelle Gray (CRI-UNB), who has been working for a decade to support professionals, students and citizen scientists in their online training of the CABIN certification program.

Lesley Carter is the Atlantic Coordinator for CABIN for ECCC. Carter hosts 3 to 4 training workshops in the Atlantic Provinces every year, which includes a recent trip to Fredericton, and she will be in Moncton and Halifax later this summer. “We teach the participants three core areas: to collect the bugs, to identify the bugs and analyze what the bugs tell us about a river’s health,” Carter explains.

The training is taught through various online modules and a field practicum, all of which are required to gain access to CABIN’s suite of web-accessible tools and resources, which include a national database, a data management system, analytical software, reporting tools and peer-reviewed sampling protocols.

“Every researcher or community group has their own way of collecting river data, which makes it hard to pool information for a broader understanding of river health across Canada. CABIN removes our habit of reinventing the wheel and provides the consistent, standardized method we can all share,” says Dr. Michelle Gray, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Management at the University of New Brunswick. Dr. Gray is also the online instructor for CABIN and a regional field lead for New Brunswick.

The combination of the certified training and standardized data collection approach means that a researcher, water manager or community group can have confidence in the data they may want to use, even if they did not collect it.

The standardized approach also helps with cost- and resource-effectiveness, especially for small organizations. “Once certified, data can be added to the melting-pot of the national database, then they benefit from the analysis and interpretation reporting,” says Gray.

After their training, CABIN-certified personnel data is added to the national database, and the model is run which compares the collected data to regional reference sites - which are the healthiest, naturally occurring rivers and streams without, or with very little, human impacts.

A report is then produced that shows governments, professionals and community groups how the bug composition in their river or stream is similar or different than a healthy stream in their region.

“The report shows where a river site falls along a spectrum from in-line with to somewhat to highly divergent from what is considered ‘healthy’ for that river type in that region,” says Gray.

Since CABIN was developed, all of the data collected by professionals in government, consulting firms, and managers and volunteers with community groups have been helping to build the baseline data that has gone into developing the reference condition model.

“Now, they can see whether their river is staying the same or perhaps degrading over time. Those results can help them to plan future actions for river restoration,” says Carter.

Rebecca Hersom-Petersen is the Natural Resource Projects manager for the Abegweit First Nation on Prince Edward Island.  She has used the CABIN training she received in 2012 to sample many rivers and streams in PEI watersheds. “I have used the results as both an indicator of habitat quality and to measure the changes over time in areas where habitat rehabilitation has been done,” she says.

Hersom-Petersen will be teaching the CABIN field training to members of the Band’s Stream Rehabilitation crews this summer and has trained more than 20 students in the Holland College Wildlife Conservation Technology program and members of local watershed groups.

Those interested in becoming certified in CABIN protocols come from all across Canada and from a diversity of sectors including academia, government, watershed groups and community organizations, First Nation communities, consultants and other water professionals.  “The more people who take the CABIN training and contribute data strengthens the models’ ability to be as accurate as possible,” says Gray.

Hilary MacLean is an undergraduate Honours student studying freshwater mussels in the St. John River at the University of New Brunswick and she completed the field component of the CABIN program at the end of May.

“CABIN is recognized all across Canada, so no matter where my career takes me I will be certified and able to work in aquatic biomonitoring assessments,” she says.  “I like the security of knowing that my skills can be applied in any province or any sector.”

The partnership between CRI and ECCC has been mutually beneficial. “Without CRI administering and teaching components of the modules, we just wouldn’t have the people-power to properly run the program,” says ECCC’s Carter.  “CRI has had the opportunity to deploy its research strength and grow its training and professional development program and delivery capacity thanks to this ongoing partnership with ECCC,” concludes CRI’s Gray.

Since the program began, over one-thousand people have gone through CABIN training, representing every province and territory across Canada. There is still time to register for CABIN training in many provinces this summer and fall.