In this episode of the Canadian Mountain Podcast, we venture into the majestic Chic-Choc Mountain range on the Gaspésie Peninsula of south-eastern Quebec. Join us as we explore aquatic ecosystems in this Appalachian mountain range and the inspiring efforts to safeguard them. Leading this crucial initiative are Catherine Lambert and Louise Chaverie, the driving force behind the Knowledge Hub, Developing Knowledge on the Status of Aquatic Ecosystems in the Chic-Choc Mountains. Catherine is the Executive Director of the Mi’gmaq Indigenous Fisheries Management Association, and Louise is an Associate Professor with the Norwegian University of Life and Sciences.
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The goal of the Hub is to create collaborative research and conservation measures among the Mi’gmaq, university researchers, and management organizations. This will enable better decision-making regarding aquatic environments that are the basis for fisheries, forestry, tourism, and arts and crafts, which combined generate several million dollars in revenue each year. All of these industries depend on a healthy environment, and since water resources impact everything in the surrounding ecosystem, it’s crucial to the landscape and local economy to protect the surrounding aquatic ecosystems. Catherine and Louise explain why most conservation efforts have historically gone towards marine and forestry resources, discuss fieldwork during Canada’s winters for climate monitoring, describe the cultural exchange of knowledge to better steward and protect these areas, and more.
Parc de la Gaspésie. By Eberhard von Nellenburg - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Working to Create a Baseline
Numerous policies and practices have been designed to protect the marine ecosystems in the Chic-Choc range, given their vital role in sustaining lucrative commercial activities. Similarly, inland conservation policies exist to protect the trees used by the forestry sector. However, there is little to no focus on conservation of freshwater lakes and rivers, with the exception of salmon populations in some of the rivers.
This lack of attention explains why very little is known about the freshwater lakes and river ecosystems in the Chic-Choc range. Catherine and Louise are changing this with their research to discover the baseline conditions in the region. This baseline will describe current conditions in these ecosystems and will be used to compare conditions in the future, allowing a better understanding of what is changing and the impacts of those changes. The project team is measuring everything that lives in the lake from fish to microplankton, and recording nutrient levels and how they change from season to season. Sampling occurs in the winter as well as the summer, an approach that is rare in Canada.
Developing a Network of Indigenous knowledge Holders and Researchers
Since time immemorial, the Mi’gmaq in the region have depended on the Chic-Choc mountain range as an abundant source for hunting and fishing, as well as using the region as the foundation for their cultural and spiritual practices. Catherine and Louise are excited to work with the local communities, both to learn from them and also to teach them and support the increase of local expertise.
As Catherine says, establishing a Hub that includes local community members as well as researchers increases the likelihood of successfully protecting the freshwater resources in the area. The Hub initially focused on people who live there, generating interest in the Mi’gmaq members and building a small but strong team.
One of the first activities organized was a three-day camp focused on conservation and the richness of the mountains. Community members, including youth and Elders, came together to share their knowledge of the local ecology and culture, and participate in activities, such as drumming, plant gathering and dancing.
The sharing of knowledge happens in both directions. The team is teaching community participants new techniques in data collection out in the mountains while sharing knowledge and experiences. Ongoing education and awareness programming grows the awareness and care for the land in the younger generations. This supports the long-term objective of establishing a Guardians program in the area, where locals act as stewards of the environment.
Climate Change Monitoring
Climate change is happening, and the impacts are noticeable in landscapes across the country. Louise describes the goal of understanding the lake ecosystems in both summer and winter so that climate change impacts can be identified. To do this, the researchers measured ice and snow levels so they could compare the lake structure in winter relative to summer. They also collected genetic information from the wildlife in the lakes and other measures (such as fatty acid levels). This data can provide valuable information about energy transfer across and between trophic levels throughout the lake.
The team complemented their field sampling by interviewing knowledge holders. They were asked about their observations of climate change, variations in the climate and catastrophic events in the past. This traditional knowledge enriches the information gathered in the field and gives a more complete picture of the history of these ecosystems.
What Has Been Discovered So Far?
The analysis of Catherine and Louise’s data has only just begun, but already, intriguing early results have emerged. One finding is the surprising amount of variability among the different lakes. For example, one lake will have large Arctic char in it, while the neighboring lake has only tiny Arctic char. The variability among lakes extends to their colour, which shows that there are very different nutrients in the different lakes.
Another interesting finding is that there is also major variability within lakes between seasons. For example, there are completely different zooplankton populations in the winter compared to the summer resulting in different fish populations in winter versus summer.
What Are the Main Climate Change Risks?
The possible impacts from climate change in the Chic-Choc mountains are hard to anticipate, mostly because there is not an accurate baseline to show what is currently happening. Based on what has been seen in other regions across the country, it is likely that the distribution of species will be affected. The region is at the southernmost edge of cold weather species’ ranges, and as the climate warms the edge of the ranges will start to move northwards to keep these cold weather species in a suitable climate. At the moment, the alpine lakes act like refugia, allowing species that would normally be found in the arctic, like Arctic char, to survive. As warming continues, these species will have difficulty surviving in the region because these refugia will disappear.
The vast and diverse Chic-Choc mountain range harbors a rich ecosystem. To ensure a comprehensive understanding, the team envisions establishing a long-term monitoring program, designating one lake as a 'sentinel' for ongoing data collection. These Knowledge Hubs necessitate continuous data accumulation over the years, empowering vital conversations about ecosystem management with informed and productive insights from growing community expertise.
As the body of knowledge and community expertise grows, important conversations about managing these ecosystems will be better informed and more productive.