Development, Conservation and Research Priorities
Due to recent initiatives to commence economic development in Ontario, north of the forest management boundary - scientists, managers, and conservation groups have begun to identify priorities for conservation of the unique flora and fauna of the area.
To date, these efforts have focused on terrestrial mammals and plant species with particular focus on wide-ranging terrestrial mammals native to the region, such as woodland caribou.
However, the landscape that makes the boreal forest unique in the world is characterized as much by the network of lakes, rivers, swamps and bogs that make up a large part of the surface area, as it is by the vast expanses of coniferous forest expanses particular to the region. Within this boreal aquatic realm exists a diversity of fish, amphibian, and insect species that form an integral part of the boreal ecosystem.
We intend to contribute to the discussion of conservation planning for the freshwater environment of Ontario’s boreal forest by carrying out an initial study on freshwater fish with the objectives of:
- Reviewing the biology and ecology of selected fish species important to the region;
- Summarizing the known or likely impacts of economic development of the region based on examples from other provinces; and
- Recommending ways of including fish in conservation planning and management activities.
Current knowledge of the fish communities of the region is limited. Of the thousands of lakes and rivers present in the area, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources has collected data on species distributions for approximately 360 lakes. The distribution of migratory fish species such as brook trout and lake sturgeon has not been documented.
Much of the knowledge of the fish communities of the region lies with local residents (including First Nations communities) and sport fisheries and remote tourism operators.
The first goal of this study will be to bring together existing data on fish species distributions, stocking history, and habitat characteristics. It will also collect species distribution data from local residents and sport fishing operators to provide an up-to-date picture of freshwater fish populations and identify important knowledge gaps.
The primary species of interest will be walleye, northern pike, whitefish, lake trout, lake sturgeon and brook trout, with some discussion of smaller species-at-risk (e.g., ciscos), unique species assemblages, and other species of important cultural, recreational and/or commercial value. From a research perspective, there may be unique life history adaptations and fish community assemblages that allow for further research into the ecology and evolution of freshwater fishes.
The second part of the study will identify conservation concerns and examine what lessons can be learned from other recently developed boreal regions such as northern Alberta and Québec.
Development of the region will begin with forestry operations, mining, and hydroelectric projects. The primary impacts over the next decade are expected to be increased access due to the creation of logging roads, and habitat loss and fragmentation due to culvert placement for road construction. The study will identify sensitive populations and summarize current knowledge of what impacts to expect as access to previously unexploited fish populations is improved. This information can then form a basis for discussion among stakeholders of the priorities for freshwater fish conservation in the area.
The final objective of the study will be to develop a suite of recommendations for incorporating freshwater fish considerations into conservation planning. Based on the data collected and the reviewed literature, the study will propose tools for the monitoring and management of freshwater fish populations. The study will also identify research needs in order to make informed decisions about fish conservation and management.
Overall, this study will consolidate existing information on freshwater fish of the region for use by community groups and government in future conservation planning. It will also identify significant gaps in our knowledge of freshwater fish populations that may form the basis for future research initiatives. The work will have broad applicability to freshwater fish conservation issues in northern lowland boreal forests. This will act as a first step in integrating freshwater conservation issues into conservation efforts for the region.