Nearly one-third of Canada’s population lives within the Great Lakes basin – a bustling region recognized as the world’s third largest economy. Yet the Great Lakes, which contain 20 per cent of world’s surface fresh water, are facing rapidly evolving challenges related to climate change, including the warming of the lakes, changes in water levels and a rise of abnormal weather events.
“We need to work together across academic institutions, government agencies, NGOs and the general public to protect the Great Lakes,” says Dr. Aaron Fisk, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Changing Great Lakes Ecosystems and researcher at the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER).
Dr. Fisk believes research is key to advancing the understanding of potential implications of climate change on ecosystem processes, and for maintaining and developing ecosystem services that address these complex challenges.
“My research is mainly focused on understanding food web relationships and animal movements within the Great Lakes ecosystems,” he says. “Real-time data, for example, can help us understand what is going on and enable us to make informed research and management decisions. It allows us to be very agile as scientists and researchers – it also means the data is flowing back to decision-makers very quickly.”
Enabling this calibre of research is the Real-time Aquatic Ecosystem Observation Network (RAEON), a University of Windsor-led project that received $15.9-million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), Ontario’s Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science, and the Ministry of Economic Development and Growth.
Roseann O’Reilly Runte, president and CEO of the CFI, says, “RAEON’s state-of-the-art infrastructure will push the boundaries of aquatic research and technology development, reinforcing Canada’s position as a leader in environmental stewardship and a global destination for service and innovation.”
Dr. Runte sees RAEON as “a shining example of research collaboration at its finest,” she says. “This advanced hub will not only enable researchers to better understand our freshwater ecosystems, it will also foster and encourage an atmosphere of collaboration and knowledge sharing among Canada’s most talented.”
By giving GLIER researchers and their partners from Carleton, Trent, Western and Saskatchewan universities access to state-of-the-art equipment, such as a network of real-time sensors, autonomous sub-surface vehicles and an extensive collection of independent instruments, “RAEON is acting as a catalyst for bringing the Great Lakes research community together,” says Dr. Fisk.
And the ability to collect real-time data – for example, in acoustic telemetry research – is already enabling timely responses, he says. “We tag the fish, and their movement is detected by receivers that are placed throughout the Great Lakes. This research is influencing immediate management decisions related to fish stocks both in Canada and the U.S.”
The data informs the management of walleye, for example, which is, along with yellow perch, the most valuable fishery resource in the Great Lakes and plays a crucial part in Ontario’s commercial fisheries and related processing industry, which have an estimated annual economic impact of over $300-million.
Dr. Fisk works closely with numerous partners, including Canadian government researchers and agencies, and the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS), an American initiative. GLIER is also the first Canadian institution to join the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, hosted by the University of Michigan and funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an American scientific agency.
The collaborative nature of Dr. Fisk’s research is evident in existing and planned agreements and partnerships, he says. “Having close working relationships not only means we are doing good hypothesis-based research, it means we do research that is relevant to the government agencies managing the ecosystems and creating policies for protecting them.”
Collaborations not only need to involve different jurisdictions and institutions, they also have to engage a range of disciplines; for example, different areas of science, social science, economics and engineering, says Dr. Fisk. “We need to know science-based things like nutrient levels, algae blooms, fish stocks, E. coli distribution. We also need to look at social science and economic impacts, such as the health and well-being of the people who fish and eat the fish,” he explains. “And we need to provide better information to the public. All of this is critically important.”
Climate change presents complex and hard-to-model challenges. While it is a global phenomenon, understanding the implications for the Great Lakes can potentially serve as a reference for researchers worldwide who are investigating freshwater ecosystems, says Dr. Fisk.
Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.