Tyrone Burke, May 26, 2022

Protecting Our Lakes and Shorelines: New Partnership Brings Solutions Amid Urban Exodus

Social distancing is easy on Ontario’s lakes and rivers, but during the pandemic, the province’s waterways have been more crowded than ever.

“During COVID, a lot of people decided they wanted to stay close to home, and also be outside where they felt safe — kayaking, or reading a book on the dock,” says Steven Cooke, a Professor of Environmental Science and Biology who specializes in conservation science and fish ecology.

“Some people even wanted to move to a rural environment. There are a lot of cottages being built, and people buying boats. And all of this is changing shorelines,”

Steven Cooke, professor of Environmental Science and Biology at Carleton University stands beside a river holding a fishing pole over his shoulder
Steven Cooke, a Professor of Environmental Science and Biology at Carleton University.

A new two-year, $533,660 Alliance Missions Grant from Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) will catalog how these pressures are impacting aquatic ecosystems. The research seeks to develop a stronger scientific base about what is happening to these ecosystems, and what must be done to protect them.

The initiative grew from ongoing conversations with the Kawartha Region Conservation Authority, Rideau Valley Conservation Authority, and Parks Canada’s Ontario Waterways group. All three were getting bombarded with phone calls from new cottagers, dealing with concerns about erosion, and receiving complaints about their neighbours’ transgressions.

“They needed more information and new science to guide decision-making. That is really what our job is — to deliver the science they need to provide guidance and education, and to make adjustments to their regulatory toolbox, if they need to.”

It is a multifaceted challenge, and this Alliance Missions Grant will fund a team of researchers at Carleton University, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, the University of Ottawa, and Toronto Metropolitan University. They will examine these changes from a biological perspective, an engineering perspective, and a human dimensions perspective.

“There are three main factors. The first is boats, which create waves that lead to erosion,” says Cooke. “The second is attempts to control aquatic vegetation. To me, these are not weeds but rather a habitat for fish and turtles. But some cottagers use chemicals and all sorts of other things to try and remove them. And the third factor is people physically changing their shoreline. Getting rid of rocks or fallen trees even though they are natural habitat – or even building a cement retaining wall.”

Steve Cooke in hip waders sitting in the storage room full of fishing poles

Cooke will be conducting research from the biological perspective, and will be taking a hands-on role. “There are students that will be doing a lot of snorkeling for this project,” he says.

The team will also be measure turbulence in nearshore areas using a number of different motor boat types – including a bass boat, a wakeboard boat, and a pontoon boat. They will be looking at how different boat types and speeds affect plants and animals – like how boat wakes could make it difficult for turtles to bask on logs on sunny days. This could lead to refinements to speed limits and rules about how far boats needs to be from shoreline.

But it’s key that this information reaches the public. “A lot of this stuff falls below the radar. People just do it, and as long as nobody tells on you, you can,” says Cooke.

“There is a lot of grey area in what’s allowed and one of our jobs is to figure out the science. What works, what doesn’t, and what kind of guidance can we give to cottagers or lake associations, in order to live in better harmony with the environment.”

That’s where Vivian Nguyen comes in. The Assistant Professor at Carleton’s Institute of Environmental and Interdisciplinary Science is leading on the human dimensions side of the grant.

Vivian Nguyen
Vivian Nguyen, Assistant Professor in Carleton’s Institute of Environmental and Interdisciplinary Science

“Humans can shape our lakes in both positive and negative ways,” says Nguyen.

“But to tip the needle towards positive behaviours, we need to understand the socioeconomic, behavioural and psychological factors that encourage stewardship, and will help ensure the sustainability of our lakes for generations to come. It is vital that we invest in research that develops practices that protect our lakes, but we will also need people to adopt these practices to achieve change.”

Education will be a big part of doing that. Enforcing regulations is difficult on recreational waterways because they are so large. Monitoring capabilities are limited, and if people don’t comply voluntarily, regulations will be largely ineffective.

“Education works, but we’re not doing it blindly. We are going to ask how people want to receive information, and use that to help guide educational initiatives,” says Cooke.  Another project partner, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, will be able to include findings from their work in the ‘Love Your Lakes’ program that engages with thousands of waterfront property owners across Canada every year.

“We don’t have to directly reach everybody. Local ambassadors can be very effective and can spread the message by nudging their neighbors and telling them: ‘hey, here’s how I’ve been controlling aquatic plants. And guess what, it’s good for fish and turtles.’

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