Bringing hope to eastern Georgian Bay fish

Certain fish populations have been suffering in Georgian Bay due to over-fishing, water flow manipulation in spawning areas, dam constructions, climate change, pollution and waves of invasive species. Here are some indicators of the collapse of certain species:

  • 30,000 to under 1,000 in one spawning location - The Eastern Georgian Bay Stewardship Council's Walleye Woes indicates that spawning runs in the Moon River of Georgian Bay used to number around 30,000 fish annually - these days the numbers have been reduced to several hundred.
  • Abundant to threatened - The Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve notes that Lake Sturgeon used to be prevalent before European settlement in the mid to late 1800’s, and now they are officially "threatened", and in fact are non-existent in some of the tributaries and water where they had spawned.
  • Georgian Bay Forever wanted to bring attention and help as a partner to the project led by The Eastern Georgian Bay Stewardship Council that will assess habitat for remediation and is detailed below.

Walleye Picture

Help is on the way…

Written by Julia Sutton of the Eastern Georgian Bay Stewardship Council in January 2017. There are some great videos on the Eastern Georgian Bay Stewardship Council page at the bottom, as well as some other information. Please visit this link .

A project is in work to assess the quality of fish habitat available to Walleye, Lake Sturgeon, and Sucker species in tributaries of Eastern Georgian Bay within Parry Sound.
Note, March 2018: This project has been completed. We will link to the end report on the Eastern Georgian Bay Stewardship Council website as soon as it is available.

In the short-term, please enjoy a restoration story for Walleye fish passage on the Shebeshekong River, that was identified through this tributary project at this link . And please read on to understand the intent behind the project.
Why?
Walleye, Lake Sturgeon and Sucker species utilize similar spawning areas and many Georgian Bay stocks move upstream into tributaries to spawn in the spring. Stocks have been stressed or severely stressed in many Eastern Georgian Bay tributaries, particularly Walleye.

Tributaries provide important spawning habitat for Walleye, Lake Sturgeon and Sucker species and, depending on the system, important refuge and feeding habitat for juveniles. Land use changes, Georgian Bay water level fluctuations and changes in upstream flows can impact these important areas for fish habitat.

More information
Reasons for Walleye decline include habitat degradation (dams, siltation), water level and flow changes, introductions of invasive species and over-exploitation.

Lake Sturgeon is listed as Threatened under the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and its listing under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) is currently being considered. Lake Sturgeon populations have declined over time due to dams, river barriers, degraded water quality, habitat loss and over-harvest. Of those factors, dams, barriers and habitat fragmentation have had the greatest impact on their population.

Sucker species, while not a species of angler interest, have been observed to be in decline in some areas of Eastern Georgian Bay. The reasons behind the decline are not clear but likely linked to changing lake dynamics and the food web in Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, caused by invasive species.

This project is looking to assess whether spawning habitat is functioning well and whether that spawning area is connected to downstream rearing and nursery areas for species to carry out their early life stages. This information will provide valuable information on habitat connectivity and the potential for restoring habitat.

Blackstone River Spawning Area
Photo Credit: Eastern Georgian Bay Stewardship Council (EGBSC)

Fish Habitat spawning Area Georgian Bay
Where exactly?

8 tributaries will be evaluated on whether they provide suitable spawning, nursery, rearing, and foraging environments.

    1. Seguin River
    2. Shebeshekong River
    3. Shawanaga River
    4. Magnetawan River
    5. Key River
    6. Pickerel River
    7. Sucker’s Creek
    8. Naiscoot River
Who's involved?

A collaborative working group is lending their expertise to help evaluate the data and to identify and prioritize sites for restoration and assist with project communications.

Led by the Eastern Georgian Bay Stewardship Council (EGBSC) , the group also includes Georgian Bay Forever, Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve, Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry Upper Great Lakes Management Unit.

    More information
    In addition to being an active part of the collaborative working group, Georgian Bay Forever is assisting with field work and providing their staff, boat and Lowrance unit to create depth maps (bathymetry) for the tributaries.
Funding
This project is being funded through the Environmental Damages Fund for Parry Sound District and EGBSC. In-kind contributions for the project are being provided by GBF, GBBR, Upper Great Lakes Management Unit (UPGLMU) of Ontario Natural Resources and Forestry.
Timeline
Start date – July 2015
Fall 2017 – Complete one restoration project
Dec 2017/Jan or Feb/2017 – EGBSC Host workshop to share findings
End date – March 31, 2018
Expected Outcomes:

In addition to the assessments of the 8 tributaries, near the end of the project, one spawning bed restoration project will be designed and completed. A workshop will be held to share project findings, open to all community members to attend. Volunteers and community members will be involved with field work when possible. The report will be shared with all project partners and other interested agencies, municipalities, First Nations and organizations. Habitat information gathered in this project will be integrated into the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve’s State of the Bay Report (2018) and the Upper Great Lakes Management Unit’s Lake Huron Walleye Management Plan.

Shebeshekong - aerial photos to help identify potential fish habitat
Photo Credit: Eastern Georgian Bay Stewardship Council (EGBSC)

Fish Habitat Picture Georgian Bay

Field Work Activities

For the eight broad assessments, the following information will be collected:

Tributary length (outlet to first major fish migration barrier or spawning area)
  • Length of accessible river from migration barrier to Eastern Georgian Bay (metres)
  • Potential limits or indicators of stress
  • Aerial photography (drone)
Spawning areas
  • Length of accessible river from migration barrier to Eastern Georgian Bay (metres)
  • Basic water quality parameters (pH, conductivity, dissolved oxygen) in spring
  • Water temperature throughout the season (spring to fall)
  • Aerial photos (drone)
  • Water flow (spring)
  • Widths and depths
  • Substrate type and abundance
  • Overall size of habitat area (square metres)
  • Accessibility of spawning areas during spring freshet
  • Number of fish using spawning area (night counts)
  • Use egg mats to assess egg deposition
  • Opportunities for restoration
  • Two to three detailed spawning assessments will be carried out on sites that could be potential restoration projects. For these assessments, field staff will take more detailed channel measurements for depth, flow and substrate and attempt to identify areas of egg deposition. This information will be used as input into a restoration design.
Nursery/Rearing/Foraging
  • Transects downstream of spawning area documenting substrate, aquatic vegetation, bank vegetation and depth during low water
  • Aerial photography from river outlet to spawning area during low water (drone)
  • Bathymetry mapping of each tributary, from river outlet to spawning area, where boat navigation is possible (GBF boat and Lowrance sonar)
Tributary survey timelines
2016 spring tributaries of focus: Seguin, Shawanaga, Shebeshekong, Magnetawan Rivers, and Sucker’s Creek
2016 summer/fall tributaries of focus: Seguin, Shawanaga, Shebeshekong and Magnetawan Rivers, Sucker’s Creek
2017 spring /summer/fall tributaries of focus: Key, Pickerel and Naiscoot Rivers
Time permitting – Naiscoot and Blackstone
Activities to Date
Fall 2015
Field work began in the fall of 2015, with the aim to develop and trial the field protocol. Staff also learned how to fly the drone to collect aerial photos.
  • Field work was started on Seguin, Blackstone, Shebeshekong and Shawanaga Rivers
  • Spawning bed measurements taken on Seguin, Blackstone and Shebeshekong (width, depth, photography) and noted any potential limitations or stressors
  • Aerial photos on Shebeshekong and Blackstone
  • Bathymetry mapping on Seguin, Blackstone, Shebeshekong and Shawanaga Rivers where possible
  • Underwater video in potential nursery/rearing habitat
  • Fish sampling in potential nursery/rearing areas downstream of the Seguin River
Winter 2015/16
  • Meetings with collaborative group
  • Analysis and refinements of field protocol
  • Began collection of background monitoring data and anecdotal information
  • Presentations to Parry Sound Anglers and Hunters, Parry Sound Nature Club, Severn Sound Environmental Association
  • Meetings with Magnetawan and Shawanaga First Nations about tributary work and potential partnerships
  • Field work organization for 2016

Photographing spawning substrate

Taking pictures of spawning habitat Georgian Bay Photo Credit: Eastern Georgian Bay Stewardship Council (EGBSC)

Georgian Bay - Shebeshekong River Measurements

Measurements on the Shebeshekong River Photo Credit: Eastern Georgian Bay Stewardship Council (EGBSC)

Sources:

Most information and copy was provided by Julia Sutton from the Eastern Georgian Bay Stewardship Council, with some editing by Heather Sargeant of Georgian Bay Forever. Thank-you EGBSC for your insightful contributions.