Great Lakes Food Webs Science Advice Clients : #1 The IJC

I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself” Oscar Wilde

I thought I would start a series to discuss some of the clients that our lab at Fisheries and Oceans Canada provides science advice to. I thought I would start with the International Joint Commission (IJC) because it incredibly important to the Great Lakes, but many people don’t really know much, if anything, about it. The International Joint Commission was created between Canada and the United States because of the recognition that the lakes and rivers that cross the borders affect both countries and that they would have to work together to manage them. The US and Canada cooperate to manage these waters “to protect them for the benefit of today’s citizens and future generations”.

The IJC finds its origin with the Boundary Waters Treaty, originally signed by Canada and the United States in January 1909. This quite forward thinking treaty didn’t prescribe anything specific, but did provide some agreed upon general principles which could be used to resolve disputes over waters shared between the two countries and other transboundary issues.

Because this treaty involves boundary waters across the border, while we focus on the Great Lakes, arguably the largest shared waters, other areas are also regulated including the BC/Yukon/Alaska border, Columbia River, St. Marys/Milk R., Souris R., Red R., Rainy-Lake of the Woods, Lake Champlain, St. Lawrence, St. Johns R., St. Croix R., and the Bay of Fundy.

Map of the IJC boundary waters for Canada and the US and detailed watershed for the Great Lakes.

While the IJC has many responsibilities, most center around regulating water quantity and water quality. This includes anything which might affect water levels and flows across the border, evaluating transboundary issues and endorsing possible options. These recommendations range from commercial shipping, hydroelectric power generation, drinking water, industry, recreation, tourism and property.

One quote from the original 1909 Boundary Water Treaty forms the crux of the research and monitoring we do on lower trophic food webs in the Great Lakes.

“…boundary waters and the waters flowing across the boundary shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other.” Article IV, Boundary Waters Treaty 1909

This is the foundation of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (amended 2012, 1987, 1978, 1972) a legally binding Treaty which “commits both countries to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Waters of the Great Lakes”. The scope of this includes the watersheds of all the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River up to Montreal, about 250 000 km2 of water surface. The GLWQA is signed by the major federal agencies: Environment and Climate Change Canada and Fisheries and Oceans (Canada), and US Environmental Protection Agency (USA).  The IJC takes in advice from experts, and the parties provide update reports on progress (triennial and biennial reports), specific to the 10 GLWQA Annexes.

In our lab, we primarily support IJC reporting for the following Annexes:

Annex 1: Areas of Concern. Certain sites around the Great Lakes are designated as Areas of Concern (AOCs) due to specific impairments. Sites we have provided advice for include: Bay of Quinte, Toronto Region, Hamilton Harbour, Niagara River, Detroit River, Thunder Bay. Mostly this advice is related to Beneficial Use Impairments “BUI” 3 (Degradation of Fish and Wildlife Populations), 8 (Eutrophication or Undesirable Algae), 13 (Degradation of Phytoplankton and Zooplankton Populations), 14 (Loss of Fish and Wildlife Habitat). An example of this is our assessment of BUI 13 for the Bay of Quinte Area of Concern. This is provided to the Bay of Quinte Remedial Action Plan which after consultation with municipalities, provincial governments, indigenous nations, and the public, submits advice to the COA committee (Canada Ontario Agreement) and up to IJC to change the designation of any of the BUI.

Annex 2: Lakewide Management. This annex is related to assessing the status of the lakes to establish lake ecosystem objectives to assess water quality and ecosystem health, reporting on the state of scientific information available, and identify research and monitoring priorities specific to each of the Great Lakes and develop binational strategies for current and future threats. We collaborate with other federal agencies (ECCC, EPA, NOAA, USGS, USFWS) to ensure that yearly lakewide surveys are conducted to provide this information to the Lakewide Action and Management Plans (LAMPs). This is the primary use of our science-tasked research vessel CCGS Limnos.

Annex 4: Nutrients. This annex is almost entirely about Phosphorus loads to the lakes leading to issues with harmful algal blooms (HABs), undesirable algae (such as benthic Cladophora), and hypoxia. We provide advice related to algal composition but also changes in algal growth rates (primary productivity) and microbial growth rates. This annex was originally focused exclusively on reducing phosphorus loads to lakes, but more recently has recognized that some of the offshore waters of several of the Great Lakes (including Michigan, Huron and Ontario) have shown strong declines in productivity which might affect other trophic levels including fish populations.

Annex 6: Aquatic Invasive Species. Most of this annex is focused to prevention of new introductions of aquatic invasive species to the Great Lakes, but also about eradication or control, but also about the ecosystem related impacts of established species. My original work at DFO was related to invasive carps (Bighead and Silver Carp) risk to the Great Lakes. Several papers were influential in establishing the monitoring programs for these carps species, including one that determined a population could establish with less than 20 individuals. Our lower trophic lab provides information related to several important species including: Dreissena sp. (Zebra and Quagga mussels, see paper on their larval dispersal stage veligers here), and several introduced predatory cladoceran species, the Spiny Water Flea (Bythotrephes longimanus) and Fishhook Water Flea (Cercopagis pengoi) [see paper about long-term monitoring at station 81 on their effect].

Annex 7: Habitat and Species. Most of our advice has been related to the goal to increase net gain of habitat and ecosystem targets and assessing gaps in current binational and domestic programs and initiatives to conserve, protect, maintain, restore and enhance native species and habitat. For instance our surveys of distribution and timing of zooplankton species is used to identify issues of forage for planktivorous fishes which are important to the diet of many of the recreational and commercial fishes in the Great Lakes.

Annex 10: Science. Not surprisingly, this is one of the main annexes we provide advice to given our role a federal science agency. Specifically, we are part of the core planning for the Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative (CSMI) which plans and executes intensive monitoring field-years rotating through the five Great Lakes. We help to provide priorities and give expert feedback to the Great Lakes Executive Committee.  We are a major partner which helps to coordinate scientific efforts in support of the restoration and protection of the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Waters of the Great Lakes.

Related to this last Annex 10, I spent several useful days this past week at an IJC workshop in Windsor, ON discussing the future needs for Great Lakes Winter Science priorities with an excellent group of colleagues. In an interesting coincidence, two of our Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers, the Griffon and the Samuel Risley were moored right outside of our meeting room window. The reason they were there was that there is no current icebreaking activities needed to escort ships in the Great Lakes for the second year in a row. The lack of information about Great Lakes winter has already been noted, and climate change has radically affected the timing of ecological processes and ecosystem processes in the Great Lakes. There is a clear and present need to identify priorities for research and monitoring, not just in the future, but right now.

Two red and white Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker ships are tied up along the Detroit River in Windsor, with Detroit, MI skyline in the background. Ships are the CCGS Giffon and the CCGS Samuel Risley.

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  1. Pingback: Zig-Zagging Through Lake Erie: A CSMI Expedition on the Limnos - Great Lakes Food Webs

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