Monthly Archives: August 2014

Reducing Your Personal Impact

By Dan Vanclieaf


Have you ever asked what you can do to ensure a healthy and sustainable Muskoka? One of the most important actions you can take is to minimize your personal impact on the surrounding environment. Maintaining and preserving the natural features and unique ecosystems found throughout Muskoka relies on establishing a balance between human development and natural processes.


Here are a few tips that can help you reduce your personal impact.


  1. Reduce your consumption of fossil fuels and electricity. These sources of energy have a number of environmental impacts, locally, provincially and internationally. In many cases, fossil fuel and electricity production rely on methods that are unsustainable, requiring large inputs of energy and large land areas, often removing wildlife habitat.
  2. Don’t Idle. Car exhaust has a direct impact on human health, especially young children and seniors.
  3. Walk or bicycle to work or the store. It is great exercise and you can enjoy your neighbourhood while also reducing your use of fossil fuels.
  4. Treat electricity as a luxury. There are a number of simple modifications you can make to your daily life, which will both cut down on energy consumption and your electricity bill. Minimize the use of lighting by using natural light during the day and making sure to turn off lights when not in use. Reducing electricity use can also be accomplished by opting to open windows, allowing a natural breeze to cool homes, instead of air conditioners and fans, which can consume a large amount of electricity each day.
  5. Maintain your septic system. As a general rule, septic systems should be checked every 3-5 years. Regular checks of your septic system can catch problems as they occur and before the system fails completely resulting in a health hazard and impacts local water quality. Septic systems should also be pumped out as required.
  6. Compost kitchen and yard waste. The compost product is a great natural spread for gardens.
  7. Plant a tree. Trees provide shade that cool your house and give you a shaded area to sit and relax. They also produce the oxygen we breathe and sequester carbon, which will help to reduce greenhouse gases.
  8. Reduce the amount of material you purchase with heavy packaging, choose options that may be fresher and require less processing and energy.


These simple activities will help cut down your personal impact on the environment by reducing consumption and waste, and helping to create a better balance between your activities and the needs of the natural environment.


The preservation of Muskoka’s natural environment is important to our health, our economy, and our lifestyle. By taking some of the actions described above you can have a positive impact on the health of Muskoka.


For more information on reducing your personal impact, and to see how your area of Muskoka is doing, refer to the Muskoka Watershed Report Card at



Past articles are available in this blog under the Watershed Notes Articles category or under Past Articles in the Resources section.



Simple Ways to Reduce the Spread of Invasive Species

By Dylan Moesker


Invasive species are a growing topic of concern as the importance of native species is becoming better understood. Experts in the field have been actively trying to combat the problem with physical, chemical, and biological methods, but these methods can be costly and often time consuming. This being said, there are ways that you and I can help prevent invasive species from spreading and help manage areas where invasive species currently occur. The overall goal is to stop the spread of invasive species and eradicate existing problems species.


First off, what exactly are invasive species? They are an introduced species that will negatively affect surrounding habitats and other species. They are able to quickly adapt to their environment and will often outcompete native species. Some habitat loss has been attributed to invasive species, which can reduce biodiversity.


A good place to start in the fight is purchasing native or non-invasive plants from your local greenhouse or nursery. Many invasive plants can be aesthetically pleasing, which sometimes causes us to think with our eyes rather than our brain. This is a common accident, and even I am guilty of buying plants without properly educating myself. Greenhouses and nurseries are knowledgeable of the plants they stock, so try asking an employee about the species you looking to buy.


Another way to reduce the spread is to not move species from one area to another without full knowledge of how it interacts with other species. As you may know, invasive species often out-compete native species, which allow them to rapidly spread. Although a species may be beautiful, it could have devastating results if introduced to another environment.


Also, ensure that ATVs, boats, and other equipment that may have come into contact with invasive species are properly washed and have dried for at least six hours before moving to another location.


In the recently published Muskoka Watershed Report Card, a majority of the watersheds within Muskoka were stressed by invasive species. Listed above are just a few easy steps that we can all take to protect the amazing biodiversity within Muskoka and prevent the spread of new invasive species. A little bit of research to properly educate ourselves will go a long way, and will help in the fight against invasive species.



Past articles are available in this blog under the Watershed Notes Articles category or under Past Articles in the Resources section.



The Importance of Wetlands for You and for Muskoka

By Dan Vanclieaf


In a region renowned for its lakes and rivers, the importance of wetlands in maintaining a healthy and functioning ecosystem is often forgotten. In the recent past, wetlands were perceived in a negative light and in many cases were cleared to make room for development. This perception was influenced by a lack of understanding regarding the variety of benefits provided by these unique areas. With new information and research, we are beginning to realize how important these systems really are.


A wetland is land that is permanently or seasonally flooded by shallow water, or areas where the water table lies close, or at the ground surface. Within these environments, water tolerant plants thrive, surviving either completely submerged or on the water surface itself.


Wetlands provide a number of services or added benefits to us and the natural environment. These services include filtering nutrients and harmful chemicals, which improve the health of the lake and allow a number of species that depend on clean water to survive. This filtering ability can be thought of as a buffer, between the water and land, but also between humans and waterbodies. Wetlands buffer the impact of development and other human activities, such as waste disposal and building, on our lakes and rivers.


Wetlands can also reduce the impact of both flooding and drought, slowing down the flow of water over the landscape and into lakes. When the spring rains come, wetlands even-out the flow of the runoff and help maintain safe water levels in lakes and rivers. In the summer as the temperature climbs and the rains subside, wetlands continue to release the stored water into both lakes and groundwater, keeping water levels within acceptable ranges.


Wetlands also provide essential habitat for a number of aquatic and land based plants and animals, including small birds, frogs and other small amphibians. Finally, wetlands can supply a number of recreational opportunities, such as bird watching, canoeing, and fishing, not to mention the aesthetic beauty or enjoyment gained when viewing these unique areas.


One of the most important things to realize is that wetlands are part of the larger system and do not operate by themselves. So what would happen if we got rid of all the wetlands?


Without wetlands to provide these services a number of natural features across Muskoka would disappear. Spring floods would increase and summer droughts would become worse. Many plants and animals would disappear. Wetlands have the ability to impact and influence interactions all throughout the surrounding area, and without them Muskoka would look a lot different.


Small areas of aquatic vegetation close to shore are known as marshes and are important to break waves before they hit the shore. By removing these small wetlands you will experience increased erosion and a loss of animal habitat. Your shoreline will become degraded, impacting many of the values that drew you to the lake in the first place.


Wetlands can also be a popular spot for nesting and breeding, for a number of species within Muskoka, both aquatic and those that travel to forest areas after birth. Some of these species, such as dragonflies and frogs, are critical for the health of the food chain and are relied upon by larger species for survival. Without wetlands and a spot to birth their young, the food chain could suffer.


One of my favourite things about Muskoka is being able to interact with wildlife, whether it is deer, birds, or water-based species, an activity that wetlands make possible. Without wetlands, many of your favourite species may become threatened in your local area.


As seen in the recently published Muskoka Watershed Report Card, many of the wetland areas in the larger lakes throughout Muskoka have become vulnerable due to development and other human activities. It is up to us to recognize the benefits of these environments, and the services that they provide to the surrounding area. If you have a wetland on your property, or on your lake, think about some of these added services and how they may benefit you!


For more information on the importance of wetland areas to the health of lakes in Muskoka, and to see how your subwatershed is doing, please refer to the Muskoka Watershed Report Card at



Past articles are available in this blog under the Watershed Notes Articles category or under Past Articles in the Resources section.



Healthy Watersheds are Biodiverse and Resilient


‘Biodiverse’, ‘Resilient’, words like these don’t mean a lot to the average Muskokan, but we all understand the idea of a healthy environment occupied by the kinds of plants and animals that are ‘supposed’ to live there. Such an environment is resistant to outbreaks of pests or tree diseases such as Beech bark disease and is able to cope well with a severe winter or a hot dry summer without having large numbers of its plants and animals die. Healthy environments are what we all want for Muskoka, if only because our wonderful Muskoka environment drives our economy.


The 2014 Muskoka Watershed Report Card evaluates the health of our environment by looking at a series of indicators that tell us something about particular aspects of that health – sort of like using blood pressure, pulse rate, temperature, weight, and waist size as indicators of human health. These indicators are then grouped to report on the health of the land, water, wetlands, and biodiversity of our environment.  Of these, the most difficult to assess has been biodiversity.


Biodiversity refers to the richness of life in the environment – the number of different species, their genetic variability, and the extent to which different groups of species occur from one place to another within the region.


Muskoka is blessed with a rich biodiversity primarily because of the extensiveness of our natural ecosystems here. Regions in southern Ontario have been far more substantially altered as we farmed them and then turned them into towns and cities, and they are no longer able to support many of the species that used to occur.


Our rich biodiversity confers resilience – the ability of our natural ecosystems to cope with environmental changes. But how do we measure biodiversity?


Neither the District government, nor the MNR or MOE have detailed, up-to-date records of where in Muskoka each kind of plant and animal occurs, and information on the genetics of these plants and animals is even more limited! Still there is some information on two relevant aspects of biodiversity – species at risk and invasive species.  Here is how the Report Card uses data on species at risk as an indicator of environmental health.


Species at risk are plants and animals that have been examined and determined to be in imminent risk of extinction within Ontario. Of the 200 species listed, 42 are known to occur in Muskoka-Parry Sound, including the whip-poor-will, cerulean warbler, eastern hognose snake, Blanding’s turtle, lake sturgeon, little brown bat, butternut, and the rust-patched bumblebee.


That they occur here is wonderful, and keeping them here is a very worthwhile goal. While it is known that these 42 species are here, we do not know everywhere in Muskoka they now occur. But we do know everywhere in Muskoka where there are patches of habitat that would be suitable for each of them, and it turns out some parts of Muskoka provide a greater amount of suitable habitat for more species at risk than others.


By mapping habitat suitable for all the species at risk, it is possible to identify those portions of the Muskoka watershed that are potentially most valuable as places for species at risk to live.


These portions of Muskoka are considered to be of special concern for species at risk, and for that reason are colored red on the Report Card maps.  By taking more care in places that might be home to species at risk we can enhance the chances that these species will continue to thrive here.



Past articles are available in this blog under the Watershed Notes Articles category or under Past Articles in the Resources section.



Muskoka’s Lakes Should Offer Good Homes for Fish


We all know fish live in water. Anglers know that fish, just like us, have their real estate preferences, and don’t hang out just anywhere in a lake. The sandy beach with a westerly outlook is great for you to enjoy the sunset, but not for them; they prefer the sheltered inlet full of lily pads that create a dappled pattern of light and shade, or the boulder shore with a couple of fallen trees, now submerged, creating golden arches and sheltered hidey holes.


The 2014 Muskoka Watershed Report Card used four criteria to assess the health of the waters of Muskoka, and one of these four was Fish Habitat.


While the larger fish spend most of their time in the deeper waters, venturing close to shore only where the waters are shady, not too shallow, and offer lots of cover, young fish spend most of their lives in the narrow strip of water fringing the shoreline. Here the water is warmer, promoting rapid growth, and they are away from the mouths of larger fish that seldom turn down the opportunity to grab a tasty fish dinner.


Of course, this is the same part of a lake in which we spend most of our time when we are in the water, swimming, playing, or getting ready to go out skiing, tubing, canoeing or sailing over the deeper water. While baby fish crave the cover provided by aquatic plants, branches, small boulders and undercut ledges, we prefer sandy shores, easy on the feet, and free of “debris” or other “icky things”.


And so, we “improve” our shallow shores, removing rocks and debris, raking the sand, clearing out “weeds”, installing docks, retaining walls, slides, and large inflated plastic castles. I think you can see where I am going…  Our notion of a desirable waterfront is not quite what baby fish would choose.


There is a simple solution, of course: share the waterfront by leaving most of it in as natural a condition as possible while “improving” a small portion so we will be comfortable inviting our friends to come wading in the lake. That is why every municipality in Muskoka includes a requirement that shoreline alteration not be undertaken on more than 25% of a lot’s frontage – a specification that originally comes from Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s recommendations for preserving habitat for young fish and other creatures vital to the health of a lake. (Yes, there is valid science behind those rules we must follow in developing our Muskoka property!)


Using measurements of the extent of shoreline modification around lakes, the Report Card classifies each subwatershed in terms of the proportion of fish habitat available. A watershed with heavily developed lakes, in which owners have extensively modified their waterfront areas, is less able to provide the conditions young fish need to survive and grow up. That lowers watershed quality because if little fish cannot grow up, there will be fewer big fish around for us or the loons or the osprey to enjoy.


Think about this next time you are “tidying up” at the edge of a lake – you are probably destroying somebody’s watery home.



Past articles are available in this blog under the Watershed Notes Articles category or under Past Articles in the Resources section.



When Algae Go Bad

By Dr. Norman Yan


In a previous article I argued that “we’d be stupid, hungry, and dead without algae” in the waters of the world, because every other breath we take and some essential biochemicals in our bodies are directly produced by aquatic algae.


Thus, for the vast majority of the time, and in the vast majority of our lakes, algae are good for both us and for Muskoka’s aquatic ecosytems. However, on rare occasions, algae can “go bad”, and form what are called Harmful Algal Blooms, or HABs.


Most HABs occur in estuaries or along developed coastlines in the oceans. These HABs are called red tides, and are formed of very dense accumulations of a single-celled algae, called a dinoflagellate. During red tides these algae are so numerous they stain the ocean red with their pigments, and red tides are dangerous, releasing toxins that can harm fish, shellfish, marine mammals, birds, and people. They can even harm regional maritime economies when fisheries have to be closed.


Red tides are restricted to salt water environments, but there are also two main types of HABs that can occur in freshwaters. The first kind is a blue-green algae bloom. Blue-green algae are actually a kind of bacteria, called Cyanobacteria and blue-green blooms are fairly common in hot summers in phosphorus-rich lakes. This is one of the reasons why so much attention is given to phosphorus management in and around our lakes in Muskoka. When they occur, blue-green blooms may form unsightly surface scums or sub-surface accumulations of algae, and when the masses sink they consume bottom-water oxygen which is so essential to deep water life, including trout.


Some blue-green blooms can also release toxins, especially a large family of chemicals called microcystins. At high densities, microcystins can irritate the skin and eyes of swimmers. They are also toxic if ingested in large amounts, and livestock have been killed when animals have drunk from bloom-infested waters. Thus, blue-green blooms are serious business, leading, when microcystins are present above action thresholds, to orders from health authorities to not draw water from or swim in affected lakes.


We don’t know all the details of what causes these blooms, but we do know that warmer growing seasons and elevated phosphorus levels promote blooms. The good news is that blue-green blooms are very rare in Muskoka lakes, with the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) reporting only one such incident in 2012. We also will soon know more about these types of blooms, because this is an active area of research by the Canadian Water Network’s Muskoka watershed research node.


The second type of HAB is formed by a few species of the “golden-yellow algae” called Chrysophytes, and when they bloom they turn the water golden-brown in large patches. These blooms are usually quite short-lived, but they may pose taste and odour problems when they do occur. I happened to be on Harp Lake, east of Huntsville, one summer when such a bloom occurred. It formed an obvious, large, brownish patch in the middle of the lake, but lasted only a few weeks, forming more of a curiosity than a nuisance, in that case. These blooms can occur in soft-water, slightly acidic, nutrient-poor lakes, and we have lots of those sorts of lakes in Muskoka, but the good news is that they are quite rare. The MOECC recorded only two chrysophyte blooms in Muskoka lakes in 2012.


The vast majority of Muskoka lakes are in good condition, as far as algae are considered. There are enough algae to support the diverse food chains supporting the fish, amphibians, turtles and birds that we so value, but not too many algae to reduce water clarity and form harmful blooms. Let’s manage our watershed wisely to keep it this way.



Past articles are available in this blog under the Watershed Notes Articles category or under Past Articles in the Resources section.



We Owe Our Lives to Algae

By Dr. Norman Yan


The 2014 Muskoka Watershed Report Card was released in May and presents the results of monitoring the health of our watersheds. For the first time it includes an evaluation of algae. We normally only think about algae when they “go bad”, and because this tends to attract media attention, we might think it’s a fairly common occurrence.


When algae go bad, they often form surface blooms, blooms that are unsightly, smelly, and, at their worst, toxic, forcing us to stop drawing lake water for use at the cottage.  My purpose here is to remind readers that not only  do algae rarely go bad in Muskoka (under 1% of our lakes every year), but also that algae provide us with vital services.


The simple and largely unrealized truth is that we’d be stupid, hungry, and dead without algae.


Algae prosper in places where there are nutrients, moisture and light, and that is pretty well everywhere. There are hundreds of thousands of microscopic algae in every litre of healthy surface waters. Algae colonize rock faces where there is water seepage; they can colour whole fields of snow; and it’s algae that tint your bird bath red when you don’t top it up.


Victorian Diatom

Victorian Diatom

However, where algae really do their work is in the open waters of the world. Every drop of surface water has algae. They come in all colours and vary enormously in size, from microscopic to giant kelp. Even in Muskoka’s lakes, algae vary in size from microscopic to 10’s of millimetres in length.


Algae are also often stunningly beautiful; Victorians used them to make art that could only be appreciated under a microscope.


But would we really be stupid, hungry and dead without them?  We would, and here’s why.


Seventy percent of the earth’s surface is water and algae inhabit all of it. They are photosynthetic, using sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrate and releasing free oxygen.


Take a deep breath. Now take another. That second breath is a gift of algae, because they produce roughly half of the free oxygen in the atmosphere. We’d be dead without this oxygen, dead without algae.


Without algae we’d be hungry, because the fruits of the world’s waters provide about 20% of the protein that humankind consumes. We also might be stupid since 20% of the mass of our brain is lipid, and the key lipids are omega-3 fatty acids that come from the fruits of water. Algae make omega-3 fatty acids, passing it unaltered up the food chain to the seafood that normally provides us with these essential nutrients.


Next time you look at your lake, think for a minute about algae. Without algae there would be no fish, no loons, no otters, and no frogs. In fact, it would be a lifeless swimming pool, without a food base to support life. Yes, algae can occasionally go bad, usually because we haven’t looked after the watershed. But the vast majority of the time, and in the vast majority of places in Muskoka, algae are providing us with essential services.



Past articles are available in this blog under the Watershed Notes Articles category or under Past Articles in the Resources section.



Muskoka’s Aquatic Invaders

by Norman Yan


Olympic medals aren’t the only things that have recently come to Muskoka from the Socchi area. It’s also given us some of our most problematic invading species. Socchi is located in the Ponto-Caspian steppe, a huge area which includes parts of the Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan, and hosts three ancient seas – the Black, the Caspian and the Azov.


The Black Sea has a unique past; it’s been a freshwater lake at times, and at other times, including the present day, it’s a salty sea. As a result, its biota have a huge tolerance to variations in salinity, and therein lies a problem. The Black Sea is connected both to the global ocean through Istanbul, and to western European rivers and harbours via continuous river and canal systems. Thus, Black Sea life has made it to some European harbours, and ships exchanging ballast water in these harbours have picked up unwanted Ponto-Caspian stowaways and brought them to North America.


Several of the most problematic recent invaders of North American waters, including the round goby, zebra and quagga mussels, and the fishhook and spiny water fleas, have come to North America by this ballast water route. Zebra mussels have likely been introduced many times into Lake Muskoka (their larvae were caught in the lake as far back as 1989) but, as far as we know, they have failed to set up permanent residence, given the softness of Lake Muskoka waters; however, unlike the zebra mussel, the spiny water flea, Bythotrephes, has flourished in Muskoka’s waters.


spiny water fleas on fishing line

Spiny water fleas on a fishing line.

The spiny water flea was detected in Lakes Muskoka, Rosseau and Joseph in 1989, in Fairy, Go Home, and Mary Lakes in 1990 and in Vernon and Peninsula Lakes in 1991. Since then, the invader has spread widely. By 2011, the spiny water flea had colonized at least 160 lakes in Ontario, and Muskoka, with 80 known invaded lakes, was ground zero for this regional spread.


Of course not all non-native species are damaging, in fact, most likely aren’t. However, it does appear that 10-20% of non-indigenous aquatic species are damaging, and the spiny water flea is one of those.


It is an open-water predator of plants and animals that are smaller than itself, and many native populations of water fleas have crashed since the invasion. The best studied case is Harp Lake east of Huntsville, where the diversity of a group of native zooplankton called Cladocera has fallen by 2-3 times in the summer, and the annual biodiversity of zooplankton has fallen by 20%.


Indeed, the spiny water flea appears to have offset some of the benefits of the reduced acidity of rain falling in Muskoka. In most Muskoka lakes, the biodiversity of native zooplankton has risen by about 15% over the last few decades because of a significant reduction in lake water acidity.  This is great news, but in lakes invaded by the spiny water flea there has been no increase in this biodiversity.


We can reduce the spread of this invader. Research done at McGill University suggests it wasn’t river connections that spread the invaders among our lakes. Rather, it was the movement of people, and presumably their water-flea contaminated boats.


Research from the University of Minnesota has demonstrated that the spiny water flea and their resting eggs die after 6 hours of drying. So, please dry your boat and all your gear for 6 hours between lakes, and we can slow or perhaps even stop the continuing spread of this damaging invader among Muskoka lakes, 95% of which are not as yet invaded.


On September 12th, you can become a Researcher for a Day with the Muskoka Watershed Council and Sunset Cruises by joining me on a cruise of Lake Rosseau where you will make your own zooplankton net (materials provided) and learn about the living lawn mowers in our lakes while collecting and examining samples of both native and invasive zooplankton. Learn more at



Past articles are available in this blog under the Watershed Notes Articles category or under Past Articles in the Resources section.