The Great Lakes: A Macrocosm of the Muskoka River Watershed

By Emily Crowder


At the University of Guelph, Professor Paul Sibley teaches a course titled “Stressors in the Great Lakes” where 15 or so lucky students get to participate in a combination of field and classroom learning focused on the Great Lakes and the threats they face.


My name is Emily Crowder and I am an Environmental Sciences Master’s student. I was fortunate enough to be one of the students to participate in this course, inspired to sign up after working last summer as a Water Quality Technician for the District of Muskoka.


Throughout the semester, the class visited multiple locations along the Credit River, Hamilton Harbour and Coote’s Paradise, Eramosa River and the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks to learn about what issues the Great Lakes Basin is facing, and how these issues affect the ecosystems.


During these trips, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between the Great Lakes Basin and the Muskoka River Watershed. Both areas face similar threats to water quality, water quantity, and overall ecosystem health. These threats include: invasive species, harmful algal blooms, extreme weather events, urbanization, and climate change.


Due to these similarities, is it fair to classify the Great Lakes as a macrocosm of the Muskoka River Watershed?


A macrocosm is defined as “the whole of a complex structure, especially the world or the universe, contrasted with a small or representative part of it”. Based on this definition, the “world” would be the Great Lakes, and the “small representation” would be Muskoka.


Is classifying the Great Lakes as a macrocosm for Muskoka helpful to us as environmental stewards?


Well, if the Great Lakes Basin is a larger, more developed representation of the Muskoka River Watershed, maybe we can learn from its mistakes and misfortunes. For example, there are over 180 invasive species that have established in the Great Lakes.1 In contrast, only seven have established in Muskoka.2 If we can understand how each invasive species entered the Great Lakes, perhaps Muskoka can take preventative measures to ensure our number stays low.


Continuing with the example of invasive species, in the Great Lakes, Rudd are considered an invasive fish species. They were used as bait because they were small, inexpensive, and effective. Bait release allowed Rudd to establish in the Great Lakes and cause problems for many other native fish species who now have to compete with them.3


Muskoka can avoid situations such as this through the use of educational programs and invasive species prevention plans.


The effects of urbanization in the Great Lakes is something Muskoka can learn from as well.


As Muskoka’s #1 industry is tourism, the influx of tourists in the summer can have major impacts on our lakes. Factors such as shoreline hardening, pollution from boats, loss of wildlife and habitat, excess nutrient loading, and increased erosion and agricultural runoff from the removal of riparian buffers are all heightened with increased populations.


There have been many studies done in the Great Lakes; therefore, utilizing this research can help project what may happen if urbanization continues at a high rate around our lakes.


However, perhaps it’s not fair to compare the two so closely, as there are large differences between the Muskoka River Watershed and the Great Lakes Basin that cannot be overlooked.


For example, the Great Lakes are shared between two countries and face policy inconsistencies as a result. Having rules and regulations in place to reduce nutrient loading will only be successful at reducing the frequency and severity of algal blooms if both countries are on the same page and are implementing the same regulations. Policy inconsistencies across borders have proven to be an issue for harmful algal blooms and invasive species control.


Looking outside Muskoka and learning from other areas is something we can and should do. Not only to learn what not to do, but also to adopt strategies that have proven to be successful in the past.


The Great Lakes Basin, while threatened by multiple stressors, has also been able to achieve great success due to policy efforts and education. For example, only one invasive species has become established in the Great Lakes since 2010.4 Another success is the implementation of action plans such as the“Asian Carp Response Plan”.5


Positive achievements such as these are equally, if not more, important because they are examples of what Muskoka could consider implementing to better our watershed.


Overall, looking outside the environmental haven that is Muskoka can be extremely beneficial for adopting successful strategies and defensive mechanisms. While other areas may not share all the same qualities as Muskoka, we are all stakeholders in environmental conservation and are therefore connected by this common interest.



  1. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 2019. Invasive species.
  2. Muskoka Watershed Council. 2018. 2018 Muskoka Watershed Report Card: invasive species reports in Muskoka.
  3. GLANSIS. 2016. Scardinius erythrophthalmus. Great Lakes Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System.
  4. Alliance for the Great Lakes. 2018. Keeping invasive species out of the lakes.
  5. Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2018. Asian carp. Government of Canada.