Volunteers shimmy and shuffle in the river for science

Four volunteers became citizen scientists on the picturesque shore of the Ottawa River by donning hip-waders and gloves before kicking up the surface of the water to collect benthic invertebrates (bugs!). Led by Living Lakes Canada experts, the volunteers joined World Wildlife Fund Canada’s David Miller in practicing a kick-test shimmy on shore before venturing into Remic Rapids to do their part in assessing the health of the Ottawa River watershed to help reverse the decline of wildlife in the ecosystem.

A proper net, gloves and sample container are needed to collect benthic invertebrates.

Living Lakes Canada representatives Heather Leschied and Raegan Mallinson describe proper collection techniques.

Volunteers Eliza Ali, Brennan Doherty, David Miller (WWF-Canada president), Jason Pearman, and Amy Ede practice the kick net technique – which mostly involves kicking and twisting your feet upriver of your net to dislodge bugs from the riverbed. These small bugs tell an important story: By identifying and counting them, we can better understand the health of the watershed overall. In some cases, their presence (or absence) can indicate the basic health of a river.

Indicator species like stoneflies and caddisflies are highly sensitive to pollutants and other changes that impact aquatic ecosystem health – finding these flies in the net is a very good sign. WWF-Canada’s recent Watershed Reports and Living Planet Report Canada highlighted serious data deficiencies on benthic invertebrates, as well as the importance of this kind of information to allow all levels of government to make evidence-based decisions about freshwater management.

Environment and Climate Change Canada biologist Donald Baird (bottom right) inspects a sample and preserves it for analysis. When asked about this new monitoring program, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna said her department is committed to assessing aquatic ecosystem health across the country. “We are lending our scientific and technical expertise to support the WWF-Canada initiative and ensure cleaner rivers and lakes for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren,” she said.

Samples collected by volunteers like Doherty and Ali will be analyzed in the laboratory to inform conservation decisions at the watershed and national level. In the past, analysis of a sample had to be done by hand by a taxonomist. Thanks to new environmental DNA (eDNA) technology pioneered by University of Guelph scientists, samples can be analyzed much more quickly and provide a greater depth of data than ever before. eDNA technology compares genetic material in the sample to a global DNA library to identify species. WWF-Canada has partnered with the University of Guelph to bring this world-leading eDNA technology to this national monitoring program.

Back on shore, after examining their samples – which included many caddisflies, stoneflies and even a fish – the volunteers’ excitement quickly spread to others nearby. A pair of passing cyclists and a pedestrian stopped by and were promptly given a lesson and handed their hip waders. Paul and Edna O’Brien and Ellen Kammermayer were happy to join in the action.

The Remic Rapids test on the Ottawa River is the first of many in WWF-Canada’s new national community-based freshwater monitoring program that will see volunteers across the country deliver high-quality scientific data for freshwater ecosystems. Working with Living Lakes Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada and the University of Guelph, this program will soon be coming to a watershed near you.
Stay tuned for more on how to get involved. (And if you can’t wait, drop us a line at [email protected]).
WWF-Canada would like to thank Loblaw Companies Limited for their generous support of our pilot projects in Ottawa and the Sunshine Coast