Vital Signs is as much a report on the health of Georgian Bay as it is a morning of learning about the research Georgian Bay Forever (GBF) is conducting.

This year’s seminar – of which Bruce Power was the primary sponsor – was attended by about 100 curious bay-dwellers, who had to the opportunity to gain insight on everything from reverse-engineering food webs from the stomach contents of fish to how an outerspace view can help us understand what changes are happening in our wetlands.

Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, started off the morning by setting philosophical roadmap for attendees. During her keynote address, she outlined the major theme of the day: science as form of social empowerment.

“We are not individual land holders in a particular geographic part of the Great Lakes systems – our influence, our impact is so much greater,” she reminded the crowd.

“You exemplify what happens when place matters to people.” She identified three key ingredients to social change – science and technology, government and civil society. She stressed that change cannot happen unless all of three work together. One of her principle ideas was the notion of a contract between science and society, which links research to policy action and, “reconciles scientific excellence and social relevance.”

She urged GBF members to ask themselves if our science is asking the right questions and if it is being bought through the right channels of our institutions.

“From everything I’ve read and seen, I’m confident that the intellectual capital, the passion and the enlightened leadership in this room can bring a renewed sense of urgency and commitment,” she said.

Next, Dr. Robert Hanner spoke about his DNA barcoding work at the University of Guelph’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario.

“Species is simply a hypothesis,” Dr. Hanner said, adding that time is of the essence when it comes to cataloguing species DNA.

“Someone has observed some individual organisms in nature and based on some defining characteristic has tried to draw a binding box around them to identify them as a set.”

“As (our environment) goes through this time of profound change, our window of sampling to understand the biodiversity around us is rapidly closing,” he said.

A DNA barcode is a representation of the combination of DNA base pairs that makes the species unique, Dr. Hanner explained. Unlike genome projects, DNA barcode aim for ‘genic minimalism.’

“(We’re looking for) how little DNA do we need to know to tell species apart,” he clarified.

“This allows us to identify species rapidly and cost-effectively.”

This technique has proven to have many uses including confirming individuals are a part of the same species, identifying new species and improving taxonomy, since some samples his team collects turn out not to have associated species name. In these cases, these specimens become known by their Barcode Index Numbers (BIN).

Barcoding is also important because it allows scientists to identify not just mature species samples but also larvae and highly processed materials, like fish fillets. The aim of Dr. Hanner’s work is to generate a barcode database that can be used worldwide, and one of the first sets of species his team started to catalogue was freshwater fish in Canada. This is the first piece in the puzzle of ultimately being able to meta-barcoding an environment (gathering all of the barcodes that exist in a single habitat).

“We want to get to a place where we can identify what species of fish are in a bay just by sampling the water,” he concluded.

“I think this is what is really exciting about this technology when it comes to the Great Lakes.”

This year, GBF paired up with NASA to investigate water levels from a new perspective. Fittingly, they video-conferenced in for the morning to share their discoveries.

NASA conducts its observations of earthly changes through a network of 18 satellites in orbit.

“There are a few reasons why NASA looks at Earth Sciences,” said Mr. Favors.

“One is that you need a vantage point from space to really understand the planet. This allows us to approach looking at our earth as an entire system.”

Mr. Owens then went through data collected with GBF through NASA’s Develop program, which partners organizations with NASA to conduct observational studies. The GBF-guided study examined wetland habitats along Georgian Bay.

“We have been working on this project for 20 weeks – it just concluded last week,” explained Mr. Owens.

“We looked at the impact of decreasing lake water levels on the wetlands along the Great Lakes, and more specifically around Georgian Bay.”

Mr. Owens listed the reasons to look at wetlands, including their importance to ecosystems, the fact they serve as groundwater recharge points, are habitat for numerous species, are a source of tourism, can help control flooding and erosion, and, on a global scale, they act as natural carbon sinks.

What they discovered is there was a loss of wetlands along the southern and western edges of Georgian Bay from 1987 to 2013. But there was an increase in wetlands in the northern area of the Bay in that same timeframe.

“Overall for Georgian Bay from 1987 to 2013, there was a 7% wetland gain – mostly in the northern portion of the Bay – and a 10% wetland loss mostly in the south. Meaning, overall there was a net loss of 3.8%,” concluded Mr. Owens.

The final set of speakers for the day included Dr. Lewis Molot, Dr. Neil Hutchinson and Dr. Kevin McCann. Dr. Molot shared his research on algae blooms. First, he outlined the conditions needed for these toxic occurrences to happen – lots of phosphorus, low winds and warm temperatures.

He then informed the crowd that the number of reports of algae blooms by the public has increased in recent years and there are more blooms happening later in the year. Part of this could be from increased awareness, he said, but climate change may also be a factor in understanding why Georgian Bay is seeing more blooms.

Dr. Kevin McCann pulled together many themes raised by Dr. Hanner. By using DNA barcoding, Dr. McCann and his team have been able to reserve-engineer food webs from the stomach contents of aquatic creatures in the Bay. The key is to trace carbon, which is the

“lifeblood of ecosystems,” he said. Once that map is complete, you get a sense of what is normal for these habitats. This, then, allows researchers to pick up on early warning signs when something is off.

Lastly, Dr. Neil Hutchinson took the floor to give an update on his paleolimnological studies of Georgian Bay. Using different sized sediment columns from different points of the floor of the Bay, Dr. Hutchinson and his team were able to not only date the age of that area but also understand its composition. These samples also shed insight into phosphorus levels, which can be a precursor to blue-green algae (the cause of the toxic blooms Mr. Molot discussed).

Together, the three panelists provided different litmus tests to understand multi-faceted, complex health of Georgian Bay.

The funding for the Vital Signs conference was provided by Bruce Power’s Environment and Sustainability Fund, which is a new, $400,000 annual fund for projects that promote the betterment of the environment.