Posted on February 7, 2017 at 11:30am
It’s a fact that most Cornwall residents don’t even know about; under their noses calmly flows the world’s thirteenth largest river. Yet, although its breathtaking beauty is enough to stop any tourist dead in his or her tracks, the St. Lawrence River’s fragile ecosystem is often threatened as a result of manmade blunders.
Francis Racine, The Cornwall Journal
“We found a lot of things down there, during the cleanups,” explained Neil Dempster, internship in Support of Methods and Protocol Development for the St. Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Sciences. “We pulled out a lot of shopping carts, only to get a phone call not long after from someone saying there were more of them dumped in the river after we left. There’s a reason why the garbage cans are chained in the park. We found a lot of cans that resembled the ones the City uses, at the bottom of the river.”
With such utter negligence, it’s no wonder the River Institute was founded back in 1994. In the mid 1980s, the International Joint Commission identified the St. Lawrence River at Cornwall as an Area of Concern in the Great Lakes Basin.
In response, a group of local citizens, government representatives and the Mohawks of Akwesasne joined forces to create the St. Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Sciences, an independent, non-partisan institute for environmental research and education.
Although the institute’s main purpose was the research of water quality, water chemistry, freshwater toxicology, biodiversity and food web dynamics, it soon became obvious that education of the general public was also needed.
“All our research is useless if the people in the community can’t understand it,” explained Karen Cooper, communication action officer for the institute. “There’s a good amount of our resources that goes towards educating the residents of Cornwall and area.”
The institution therefore offers several educational opportunities for young and old people. “We have several workshops and events for students,” explained Cristina Charette, a biologist and education coordinator at the institute. “It teaches them all about the river. When the students are too young, we bring the river to them, with a small pool. It’s very hands on and they love to get involved.”
But Charette is quick to point out that several workshops are also held for seniors in the area. “We want to get everyone involved,” she added.
Studying endangered species
Having 24 dedicated staff members means that residents of the city are more than likely to come across an employee of the institute when either walking next to the river or cruising on it with their boats. “A lot of our researchers are actively on the field, doing field work,” said Cooper.
There, they assess a number of things, such as water quality, fish population as well as endangered species, among other things.
Under Matt Windle, aquatic biologist, the institute is currently spearheading a project aimed at protecting the American eel, a currently endangered species in the St. Lawrence River. Not long ago, well over a million American eels were known to swim the waters of the St. Lawrence River in the Cornwall area. Today, these eels are endangered, with the population a mere fraction of what it once was.
The creature is currently listed as endangered under the Ontario Endangered Species Act, 2007. The identification and protection of critical habitat has been listed as a priority for the recovery of the species.
The American eels begin life in the Sargasso Sea, extending south and east of Bermuda, where adults return to pawn. The young eels that manage to make their way to the St. Lawrence River, past predators, dams and the eel fishery, are survivors. In all, these survivors journey 5000 kilometers to reach the area.
American eels aren’t the only endangered species researched by the River Institute. The Little brown bat, scientifically known as the Myotis lucifugus, is also listed in the Endangered Species Act.
The bats, which have a glossy fur that varies from a light brown color to almost black, are threatened by a disease known as white nose syndrome. The disease is caused by a fungus believed to have been inadvertently brought to the area from Europe.
“We think it was brought in their habitats by cave explorers,” stated Dr. Brian Hickey, Program leader, Education and Research scientist as well as head of the Bat project. “In essence, the fungus dehydrates the bats.”
The fungus grows in humid cold environments, such as the caves and mines where little brown bats hibernate. In Ontario, bat populations have dropped by more than 90 per cent.
Dr. Hickey, himself a carpenter, has built several bat boxes, which he installed throughout Eastern Ontario. “They are made of wood and aren’t that big,” he said. “They used to attract bats outside of caves. There’s no fungus in them.”
Assessing fish health in the St. Lawrence River
The River Institute recently received a Seed grant of $75,000 from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. The grant will support the development of a new Fish Health Assessment Laboratory, which, in turn, will enable researchers to evaluate the overall fish condition and impacts of contaminants on fish in the St. Lawrence River and other freshwater ecosystems.
“This grant presents an exciting opportunity for growth at the River Institute”, stated Dr. Jeff Ridal, executive director and chief research scientist of the institute. “The Fish Health Assessment Laboratory will provide the tools needed to develop our ability to link fish health issues to environment changes. It also allows us to increase our capacity to provide lab services for in-house programs and provide services to others.”
The laboratory will be headed by Dr. Dominique Lapointe, a research scientist. “Although fish labs exist in universities and government departments, there is no independent laboratory equipped to evaluate fish condition in its broadest sense in the Ontario section of the St. Lawrence River,” she said.