February 2021 Update

GBGLF’s 2021 Research Projects: wetlands, water levels and water quality

Where is the most probing, significant research being done on the Bay to enable protection of its high-quality wetlands, the fishery, water levels and water quality? It is here with GBGLF under the leadership of our highly competent team, which includes McMaster University’s Prof. Pat Chow-Fraser and her researchers, three consulting hydraulic engineers, and GBGLF’s experienced advisors.

Beginning soon after ice out in early May, GBGLF will be supporting 3 research projects under the direction of McMaster U’s Prof. Pat Chow-Fraser.

But first, here are Prof. Chow-Fraser’s descriptions
of how extreme water levels result in wetland habitat loss:
Water level disturbance main threat

What these images tell us is that, under conditions of either extremely high or extremely low water levels, Georgian Bay wetlands are unable to migrate in or out because they are located on glacial till sediments (left from the Ice Age) that do not cover adjacent granite bedrock. Nor can the wetlands move inland due to forested areas. The result: during our extremely low water levels (2000 – 2013), McMaster U’s Prof. Chow-Fraser found that Georgian Bay had lost a very significant 24% of wetland habitat. In the summer of 2021, her research team will determine the amount lost because of Georgian Bay’s current extremely high water levels. Such wetland loss is not happening anywhere else on the Great Lakes. How to address these extreme levels? The IJC must require its International Lake Superior Board of Control to meet its stated obligation “to balance both upstream and downstream interests”. Georgian Bay now has a water level range of 7 feet, while Lake Superior is kept to a 4-foot range. Where is the equity in that?

The following graph shows just how very high-quality our Georgian Bay wetlands are.

Bottom line: we all have an obligation to protect the Bay’s high quality, diverse and extensive wetlands.
You can help by supporting our research.

A brief outline of GBGLF’s 2021 research projects
with McMaster University:

1. In a full funding partnership with MITACS (a NFP that combines Federal and Provincial funds for Post-Doctoral graduate research grants), a Post-Doctoral graduate will be determining the extent of wetland flooding and thus habitat loss due to the current extremely high water levels. GBGLF will also be providing funding for the purchase of new satellite imagery that will be ground-truthed by the McMaster researchers in order to confirm its accuracy. That will enable them to compare the 2021 amount of habitat to that of their earlier IKONOS imagery captured during extremely low water level years, and from imagery collected over the past six years by Prof. Chow-Fraser’s high-resolution drone images.  This critical information will help to determine what the impact of the current extremely high water levels has been on wetlands and the fishery. The final results will be peer reviewed, shared with the International Joint Commission and government agencies, and published in scientific journals.

2. With funding assistance from both GBGLF supporters and from the Township of Georgian Bay, we will be enhancing the water-quality assessment work that we began last summer – following on the late Dr. Karl Schiefer’s leading-edge water quality assessment for the Township from 1999 to 2009. Dr. Chow-Fraser will lead her team of researchers, and GBGLF will provide logistical assistance to get to 50 test sites a minimum of 5 times over the summer. The samples will be incubated using two methods and, in partnership with another McMaster Professor, the highly contaminated samples will be sent to a secure McMaster lab to determine if the bacteria are human or animal sourced. The results will be presented to the Township of Georgian Bay’s Council and staff, and we will follow up if next steps are needed. Dr. Chow-Fraser’s report from our summer 2020 water quality assessment work for the Township of Georgian Bay will be posted on our website in early March. Watch for it!

3. As development continues to encroach on the remaining “wild” places left on the Bay, it is important to assess how Georgian Bay’s Species At Risk (SAR) are doing. We are fortunate to have on the Bay many SAR, and some of the most vulnerable are SAR turtles that use vernal pools during their migrations.

What are vernal pools? They are inland wetlands not connected to the Bay. Typically wet in the spring after snow melt, they dry up over the summer. Because of climate change, however, many of them are drying up more rapidly than in the past, and this may be influencing movement of species at risk, including turtles and snakes. In addition, vernal pools are fishless, and provide critical breeding habitat for many species of frogs and salamanders that cannot breed elsewhere. Without vernal pools, we would have even fewer amphibian species, which are already dying out at an alarming rate in Ontario.

Blanding’s in a vernal pool

Blanding’s with radio transmitter

Significance of this research

  • Habitat loss is the major reason for these declines
  • Vernal pools are critical to their persistence because of absence of fish and other predators
  • Mapping is needed to identify all vernal pools in Ontario — currently only thicket swanps and some larger vernal pools
  • We have developed field-based mapping methods with 70-80% accuracy
  • Automated methods need to be developed to improve classification accuracies, expecially for small pools

Disproportionately more species of amphibians are imperiled, critically imperiled and possibly extirpated

Once again with partner funding, Dr. Chow-Fraser’s research crew from McMaster University will be tracking the movements of SAR turtles over the spring, summer and fall to determine location of their critical nesting and overwintering habitat.  The conventional way of tracking turtles is labour intensive, expensive and requires researchers to handle the turtles. Dr. Chow-Fraser’s lab is now researching innovative ways to sample for environmental DNA (eDNA) that is shed by turtles while they are overwintering in wetlands. This winter and next, the researchers will perform a pilot study to determine the effectiveness of using eDNA to confirm the occupancy of turtles in overwintering habitat (bogs, fens and marshes). They will first use radio telemetry technology to locate turtles that they have tagged with transmitters. Once turtles are located, they will collect water samples through the ice and filter these samples with special equipment. They will use qPCR techniques to analyze filters for Blanding’s eDNA. This innovative non-invasive approach will confirm overwintering habitat of SAR turtles without the need for an expensive tracking program and provide important information without the need to disturb wildlife. We will share this information with government agencies at all levels and educate the public on the need to protect the habitat of these important links in Georgian Bay’s sensitive ecosystems – before it is too late!

You can be a partner in this important research by contributing to Georgian Bay Great Lakes Foundation (GBGLF).  Please see below.


Donations help us make a difference 
because we can continue our work
and bring it to a conclusion for future generations.

We depend on private donors, foundations and sponsors like you.

In order to carry on this research and education of government agencies,
we need to raise $75,000 this Fall.

Charitable donations can help reduce, or even cancel out, the tax
you would otherwise have to pay to the government.


Please make out your cheque to Huronia Community Foundation
and mark in the notation line "for Georgian Bay Great Lakes Foundation" and mail it to:

Huronia Community Foundation, P.O. Box 324, Midland, Ontario, L4R 4L1


Donate Securities to the Georgian Bay Great Lakes Foundation Fund
through the Huronia Community Foundation

To ensure that we credit the right fund, ask that donations be directed to:
Georgian Bay Great Lakes Foundation Fund 

Georgian Bay Great Lakes Foundation is an Ontario registered not-for-profit
affiliated with the federally-registered charity, Huronia Community Foundation


You can get more information about claiming donations from the CRA website and your Financial Advisor.