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By Michael Christianson
Down the road in our own backyard lies a world class research facility known as the Experimental Lakes Area. Since 2014 the ELA has been in the hands of an independent, non-profit, non-governmental research organization known as the International Institute for Sustainable Development, based out of Winnipeg. The IISD has kept the facility running and now it hopes to reach out more to the surrounding communities to invite them into their world of aquatic research that has been running since 1969.
“In 1969 the first ever experiment out here was on lake 227 and that involved the addition of nitrogen and phosphorus to a system. They were studying algal blooms at the time, or trying to induce one, and they did quite successfully and they continued to add phosphorus to this lake,” said education and outreach assistant Marcus Threndyle. “As they did subsequent experiments and determined it was phosphorus and not nitrogen that was the main contributing factor to these algal blooms that were occurring they started reducing the amount of nitrogen they were putting into the system, by 1990 they were just adding phosphorus and they continue to add phosphorus to that lake so it’s a 40 year experiment ongoing now and continue to learn a lot about how it cycles through the system and the long term impacts of the phosphorus inputs on a system.”
Lots of other projects and experiments have come and gone through the ELA many of them involving the documenting of fish populations.
Almost daily researchers will go out seine fishing to catch new fish for processing. The fish are sedated in a ‘knock out bath’ consisting of trimethanesulfonate and baking soda in water. The fish is sedated while they weigh the fish, measure the length and inset a pit tag. The pit tag is inserted using a syringe injected under the dorsal fin which gives them a pit number which acts like a name for researchers who can later scan the tags to know where the fish have been caught before and when.
“In this lake Lauren the grad student is doing some work where she’s also taking biopsies; so she’ll remove portions of the scales and keep those for aging and then we also take portions of the pelvic fin or pectoral fin depending on the species for aging but what she does is she removes those scales and then she does a biopsy,” said junior research assistant Stefano Strapazzon. “So she’ll take a small portion of muscle tissue, then she uses that later to determine chemical levels and things like that and then she’ll pinch it and glue it back up and that helps in the healing process and then all these fish once we’re done processing them will go into a bin of lake water so they can come back to normal.”
As the fish breathe the water through their gills the chemicals leave their systems.
On lake 239 researchers keep an eye on the flow in and out of the lake to look at things like dissolved organic carbon.
This summer marks biologist and field coordinator Ken Sandilands sixteenth season coming to the lakes and he praises the facility for what it can accomplish.
“This is lake 239 and this is one of our long-term ecological research lakes. We have five of those lakes that we study every two weeks during the open water season and we sample it for water chemistry, temperature, oxygen profiles, light profiles, zooplankton and we actually take water samples and take them back to the lab to get analyzed. So the main purpose of the long-term ecological research lakes is they’re a reference for our experimental lakes, like a control for an experiment,” said Sandilands. “We’ve also been studying them for a long time so this lake we’ve been studying every two weeks during the open water season since 1969; so we have that long term data set so we can look at things like climate change or any other changes that have happened over those years. So it’s a really valuable data set to have something that is that long. And this lake is a little bit special because most of the lakes we’re just measuring the outflow of the lake but this lake we’re also measuring the inflow as well so that allows us to do a water budget on this lake.”
Lee Hrenchul is another biologist at the facility. She spends half the year at the ELA and this is her twelfth season, she got a job at the facility after doing her masters there working on mercury studies.
“The thing that I always think about as the most fun or interesting piece I’ve done in the past had to do with the EDC experiments, this is where we added estrogen to one of the lakes to mimic birth control coming out of sewage treatment facility,” said Hrenchul. “For one of the projects we were looking at fathead minnow spawning behaviour so this is where fathead minnows are a small fish, they don’t live for that long and so they live for a couple of years, they reproduce and that’s it and what we’re seeing was feminization of male fish both in terms of producing egg yolk proteins and having this behviour where they didn’t care about protecting their nests. Normally fatheads are really territorial, they’ll hang out right near their nests, when a lady comes by they’ll spawn and then they’ll defend their nests from everyone else.”
Researching fish underwater means snorkeling around the lake to find spawns, the crews then film the spawns and analyze the video.
Mike Paterson is the Chief Research Scientist at the facility and he has been at the ELA for 25 years. Paterson remembers many experiments that led to real changes in the world during his time at the facility.
“The research that we have done here has made a difference and the goal of the work that we do is to better understand threatens to the environment that we as humans create and to find solutions to that. I think if you look at our history we’ve done a pretty good job of doing that,” said Paterson “We’ve affected global legislation and policy on nutrients, on mercury, on the design of reservoirs, estrogen and other contaminants it’s made a difference and the reason why is we’re working at the appropriate scales. I think by and large society interacts with the environment on the ecosystem scale and if there’s one thing that has been very clear in all the research that we’ve done here is the predictions made on small scales don’t translate well to ecosystem scale.”
Matt McCandless has been the executive director of the ELA since IISD took over in 2014. He wants to open up the ELA to more community and tour groups so they can better understand what happens on the lakes.
“The people of Northwestern Ontario have been generally very supportive of the Experimental Lakes Area but also to a large extent haven’t been here and didn’t really know what was happening,” said McCandless. “So one of the areas we’ve been pursing is opening this place up and having people understand what’s going on here because really what we’re doing is trying to protect water resources around the world and that of course involves doing research but also educating the public, having them increase their awareness and their sensitivity for the threats to water and that’s one thing that our outreach and our education has done.”
Michael Rennie is an assistant professor at Lakehead University and a research fellow at the IISD-ELA. He was at the ELA to further the educational side of things with a field course of 12 students from as far as Waterloo, Guelph as well as students from the University of Winnipeg and Manitoba.
“Because it’s a field course we want to make sure that students get a full handle for work that’s involved in research on lakes and so we do everything from water sampling to sampling the organisms in the lake so the zooplankton just floating around in the middle, the stuff crawling around on the bottom,” said Rennie. “We do some collections for fish but also all the things that are involved in having to do that too so you’re doing animal care protocols and all that sort of stuff.”
The IISD-ELA was almost lost a few short years ago but it is still going strong and everyone at the facility hopes you can come out and see it for yourself.