Project Quinte can best be described as a long-term ecosystem study of the Bay of Quinte, Lake Ontario. Starting in 1972, Project Quinte was initially established to study the whole ecosystem effects of controlling phosphorus loadings in a eutrophic ecosystem. Since then, the Bay of Quinte ecosystem has experienced reduced nutrient loads, climatic events that changed the dominance of fish species, multiple invasions by non-native species, a resurgence of macrophytes, and increasing annual temperatures. Through this, the Bay of Quinte has gone from a study site to a Great Lakes Area of Concern to now the prospect of being delisted. The data that Project Quinte has assembled since its inception represents a unique opportunity to examine how ecosystems function, and the papers presented in this special issue provide evidence of the scientific and management benefits of careful long-term monitoring of ecosystem structures and processes.
Janzen (2009) described the sites of long-term ecological and ecosystem studies as “‘listening places’—places where we press our ears to the earth and strain to hear its pulse.” The Bay of Quinte is one of those places though we mainly ‘listen’ by dipping our nets, probes and sample bottles. This prospectus provides some historical context and an overview of the two sets of papers, appearing in this issue and a later issue of AEHM, which document our growing, but still incomplete, understanding of the Bay of Quinte (hereafter Quinte) ecosystem.
A Brief History of Project Quinte
By the late 1960s the problem of freshwater eutrophication was evident throughout the developed world and there was a consensus that excess phosphorus in untreated sewage, human waste and laundry detergents, was the primary cause (cf Schindler and Vallentyne, 2008: a recent update of Jack Vallentyne's 1974 book telling the whole story). Efforts to upgrade sewage treatment plants (STPs) had begun around the Great Lakes. A pilot P-control project on Gravenhurst Bay in Lake Muskoka, Ontario (Michalski et al., 1975) likely provided the early thinking for Project Quinte. Murray Johnson, then at the Ontario Water Resources Commission (OWRC) and later with Fisheries and Oceans Canada's Great Lakes Laboratory for Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences (GLLFAS), and some colleagues (Glen Owen, Michael Michalski at OWRC along with Jack Christie and Don Hurley at Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources) saw an opportunity in Quinte to study the whole ecosystem response to reduced phosphorus loading. They persuaded Ontario to coordinate the timing of STP upgrades at sites emptying into Quinte and to establish a long-term multi-trophic ecosystem project beginning in 1972; this became Project Quinte. Substantial upgrades to STPs at Trenton, Belleville, Deseronto, Napanee and Picton came on-stream in the winter of 1977–1978.
Johnson had done his Ph.D. thesis on energy flow in the Bay of Quinte (Johnson and Brinkhurst, 1971) and promoted an ecosystem energy flow approach to Project Quinte. This was supported by the fishery scientists, Jack Christie and Don Hurley, at the Glenora Fisheries Station which had been established to assess the important fisheries present in Quinte and eastern Lake Ontario. Christie participated in the discussions that eventually led to an “Ecosystem Approach” being incorporated into a renewed Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (Christie et al., 1986).
Project Quinte was comprised of a variety of research and monitoring activities; however, the core activity took the form of weekly monitoring cruises visiting a series of stations down the productivity gradient that exists through the bay alongside a fish community assessment program at a similar series of sites. Assessment of benthos, temperature and oxygen conditions were also key monitoring activities that were established early in the program. The assessment proceeded to establish baseline conditions prior to the winter of 1977–1978. Project Quinte saw dramatic changes from the summer of 1978 onwards. Nutrient, chlorophyll, and algal metrics declined. Assessing the response of the fish community was complicated by the occurrence of a substantial concurrent winterkill in the winter of 1977–1978. This winterkill adversely affected the then-dominant Alewife, Alosa pseudoharengus, and White Perch, Morone americana, stocks while releasing percid recruitment notably through a dramatic rise in Walleye, Sander vitreus, abundance in subsequent years. As the 1980s began Project Quinte started to consider how to organize and publish the preliminary results of this whole ecosystem “experiment.”
1980 Goals Statement
Project Quinte participants recognized, as they started to assemble data and begin synthesis for a major publication of results (Minns et al., 1986), that they were not participating in a fixed-term study of the recovery of an ecosystem from the impact of severe eutrophication. Instead, they were laying the foundation for a long-term study of an ecosystem as it experiences an ongoing succession of changes and disturbances. In the late 1970s, this realization led project members to spend much time and debate on defining an overall goal: “To understand the relationship among nutrient loading, ecological characteristics and processes, and societal benefits of the Bay of Quinte ecosystem.” The statement appeared in the 1980 Annual Report of Project Quinte (see Supplementary Materials). The overall goal was supported by eight (A through H) sub-goals each with up to seven objectives. While many elements were linked to nutrient management efforts, many were concerned with emerging theories about the structure and function of ecosystems.
These discussions of goals helped focus thinking, provided strategic direction for Project Quinte members and led to the publication of a set of 24 papers in a Canadian Special Publication of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences (Minns et al., 1986). In this publication authors showed how various components of the ecosystem were responding to decreased P loading. However, P loading was still decreasing and it was apparent that insufficient time had passed for the full effect of less eutrophic conditions to be seen. Also, recovery of the Walleye fishery, a major goal of restoration, was a complicated response as it was driven mainly by a climatic phenomenon and not directly linkable to reduced P levels. This complication had a positive effect in that it further stimulated ideas about the potential for food web interactions and natural events to shape the responses of ecosystems to a range of management actions. Nicholls and Hurley (1989) showed that the crash of White Perch stock size explained more of the changes in algal biomass than [P] changes in the 1972–1984 period straddling the 1977–1978 drop in point source P loading and challenged the conventional thinking about the effects of eutrophication.
Project Quinte prepared to settle in for the long haul taking appropriate actions to stream-line monitoring through the mid 1980s, keeping costs under control and expanding research investigations as events dictated or scientific understanding grew. Project Quinte became embedded in the Lake Ontario Bioindex (LOB) program that began in 1981 (Johannsson et al., 1998) and provided fresh impetus for the study of productivity, particularly at the lower trophic levels, along a wider gradient of trophic and lake conditions. A similar program ran on Lake Erie (Lake Erie Biomonitoring [LEB]) for several years. These intensive temporal monitoring programmes led onto synoptic spatial programs on Lake Ontario and Erie (Lake Ontario Trophic Transfer [LOTT] and Lake Erie Trophic Transfer [LETT]). Jointly, these monitoring programs facilitated a wide range of ecosystem research. For example, Millard et al. (1999) compared primary production processes at the Great Lakes’ sites and in a size series of inland lakes, and Dermott (2001) was able to document the rapid demise of the benthic amphipod Diporeia using data from Project Quinte and LOB sampling.
Remedial Action Planning for the Bay of Quinte Area of Concern
In 1986 the International Joint Commission (IJC) re-designated Quinte and 42 other degraded sites with continuing water quality and a range of environmental problems around the Great Lakes as Areas of Concern (AOCs). AOCs were areas with persistent problems identified via beneficial use impairments (BUIs). Quinte had eleven of the fourteen possible BUIs. Coupled with the AOC designation were demands that the responsible government agencies at all levels develop and implement Remedial Action Plans (RAPs). This was followed in 1987 with the signing of the renewal of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) between Canada and the United States. As Project Quinte had been active since 1972, the Quinte RAP process was able to get to work very quickly with a strong science-based agenda with many Project Quinte members participating in the RAP's Technical Advisory Committee. The RAP adopted the “Ecosystem Approach” that was central to the 1987 GLWQA. The RAP Steering Committee developed a program of public engagement with much support from Project Quinte (Stride et al., 1992; see www.BQRAP.ca). An intensive program of activities was undertaken drawing on all aspects of Project Quinte science. Many of the Project Quinte team served on the RAP Technical Advisory Committee. After much investigation, analysis and modelling, the RAP produced the Stage 1 report, Time To Decide, in 1990 wherein remedial targets and options were examined, and later the Stage 2 report, Time To Act, in 1993 wherein a program of remediation was laid out. Stage 3, implementation, has been actively under way ever since. The RAP Steering Committee was succeeded by the RAP Implementation Council which oversees all aspects of implementation, monitoring, and assessment. This transition also saw a gradual shift from central to local engagement with Conservation Authorities rightly assuming leadership. Project Quinte then became the principal source of monitoring and assessment of Quinte as implementation proceeded.
The final stage of the RAP process will be delisting which depends on evidence being presented that designated beneficial uses have been restored. Once delisted AOCs may be re-designated Areas of Recovery if all restorative actions have been implemented but impaired beneficial uses remain. If all beneficial uses are deemed unimpaired the area would cease to have any special status. The scientific understanding necessary to guarantee beneficial uses have been restored and will be sustainable into the future was incomplete in the 1980s; as a result many of the early BUI definitions were incomplete or erroneous. Thus the ongoing monitoring and assessment work has included efforts to develop better delisting criteria. The delisting process has been made harder by the combination of the limited, largely non-quantitative definitions of beneficial use impairment laid out when AOCs were first designated (George and Boyd, 2007) and the large-scale ecosystem engineering induced by invasive species like Dreissenid Mussels. Also, growing understanding in ecosystem science has made it ever clearer that the real challenges of ecosystem management are not delisting criteria but the enduring task of maintaining ecologically sustainable ecosystems beyond recovery, preferably as “Areas of Sustainability.”
The Invasions of Dreissenids and Other Species
As often occurs in a natural “experiment,” unexpected phenomena intervene. Until the late 1980s Project Quinte was primarily seen as a study of the response of an ecosystem to decreased nutrient loading after a lengthy period of excess loading. Through the 1980s, P loadings from STPs continued to decline as facilities expanded and operating performance was enhanced. Then a series of species invasions began, due largely to the continued release of ballast water from transoceanic ships entering the Great Lakes basin (Ricciardi, 2006). The post P control observations were confounded by changes wrought by the invaders.
First the Zebra Mussel, Dreissena polymorpha, arrived in Quinte (1992) and expanded rapidly as observed in other parts of the lower Great Lakes. Other species had invaded much earlier, such as the White Perch which arrived in the 1950s establishing large populations in Lake Ontario. White Perch were particularly abundant in Quinte and became a large part of the commercial harvest up until the early 1970s. Much earlier, Alewife had invaded and become a major food source for top predators in Quinte and Lake Ontario. The invaders arriving prior to P control had been considered naturalized and hence not a concern for Project Quinte.
However, the Zebra Mussel and soon after its cousin the Quagga Mussel, D. rostriformis bugensis, achieved immense abundances and produced major changes in the structure and material flows in ecosystems like Quinte. In particular, Dreissenid Mussels altered the relationship between P levels and phytoplankton biomass as their filtering diverted energy away from pelagic foodweb pathways. During this period, two predatory zooplankters, Bythotrephes longimanus (1982) and Cercopagis pengoi (1998), invaded the Great Lakes causing widespread changes in zooplankton production. Fortunately, Bythotrephes has not invaded Quinte and Cercopagis has only been observed in the lower bay although remaining a threat. More recently, another invader, the Round Goby (Neogobius melanostomus) has become established since 1998 with high abundances in Quinte and exerts considerable pressure on energy flow (Taraborelli et al., 2010). These invasions drew a lot of attention given concerns for Great Lakes fishery resources although the on-going declines in P loadings and the eventual RAP goal of delisting continued to be assessed.
Species invasions significantly shifted baselines with regard to earlier delisting criteria identified when P loading was the main issue. For example, extensive filtering by Dreissenid Mussels increased water clarity, particularly in the upper and middle sections of the bay, thereby allowing the submerged macrophyte communities to expand to levels not seen since the early 1950s. Macrophytes by their presence generated a physical restructuring of large areas of the upper bay, providing surfaces for epiphytes which are grazed by a greater variety of biota than are present when bare substrates dominant. The macrophyte abundance has allowed an expansion of centrarchid fish populations. When setting P loading targets for Quinte there had been an expectation that macrophytes would recover once external P loading was reduced and in situ P regeneration rates declined as surface sediments were renewed over time. However, before Dreissenid Mussels arrived there had been little evidence of a resurgence in macrophytes. The pivotal change due to the dreissenids was the change in the phosphorus:chlorophyll relationship which provided the basis for managing eutrophication via P loading reductions.
In the current phase of Project Quinte, three linked topics have been the major focus: (a) preparing for delisting targeted for 2013, (b) reporting on the data and science, and (c) generational turnover in Project Quinte membership. Many Project Quinte members are actively engaged in updating and assessing the quantitative criteria which will provide the basis for delisting. Project Quinte decided to strengthen engagement in the delisting assessment process through the generation of a new set of peer-reviewed publications to present new results and understanding of the Quinte ecosystem to the broader scientific community. Hence, Project Quinte undertook the presentation of a symposium at the 53rd Annual Meeting of the International Association of Great Lakes Research held in Toronto, 17–21 May 2010, along with a commitment to produce two issues of this journal containing 20 papers covering all aspects of Quinte science. Many of the papers include analysis and discussion of BUIs and the potential for delisting. These combined efforts also addressed the third topic.
In recent years many of the original Project Quinte members have begun to retire posing challenges of generational turnover and the need to find successors to carry on the analysis and interpretation of the accumulating data series. The loss of institutional knowledge and history is a problem and strengthens the case for up-to-date reporting and documentation of Project Quinte studies in these special issues. Fortunately many of the retirees have maintained some continuing involvement in Project Quinte completing and publishing new analyses. The symposium and publications also provided the means for advertising the character and availability of a rich dataset accumulated since 1972 on many aspects of the Quinte ecosystem.
The Future of Project Quinte
Project Quinte reaches its 40th field season in the spring of 2011. As has been the case throughout its history, the array of issues driving the science is continually changing. The delisting milestone will not be the end of the Quinte story. Project Quinte has outgrown its origins in eutrophication, AOCs, and RAPs, and established a continuing role in the study and management of aquatic ecosystems. The length and breadth of the time-series on Quinte makes Project Quinte almost unique in the Great Lakes. As Janzen (2009) noted, the longer the record the greater intrinsic value and relevance of the careful scientific observations to future decision-making. Studies like Project Quinte can be hard to sustain using current institutional funding models for science which tend to emphasize short-term needs for science advice. Long-term studies create “just in case” repositories of data and understanding that can be applied to new questions that might arise. The long history of ecosystem management issues in the Great Lakes has provided ample evidence that such questions, like the consequences of new species invasions and global climate change, are inevitable and that long-term ecosystem monitoring like that being conducted in Project Quinte should be an essential element of responsible ecosystem management.
The AOC-RAP processes have been largely concerned with solving specific problems and might be equated with the traditional emphasis in medicine on illness and the reduction of undesirable symptoms (Minns 1999). In recent decades the focus has shifted to health both in humans, with efforts to reduce behaviours that promote illness, and ecosystems as with the Great Lakes’ Ecosystem Approach. An ecosystem health approach recognizes the cumulative effects of human development activities on the ability of ecosystems to sustain healthy structures and processes, i.e., ecological goods and services. Many of the BUIs in AOCs were symptoms and have not been completely eliminated. For instance, as human populations around Quinte continue to grow, potential phosphorus loading will increase requiring further improvements at STPs and the imposition of absolute loading caps. The continuing population growth and linked cumulative land use transformations and waste outputs have now been augmented with the emerging threats of climate change.
These continuing pressures will require constant attention if the beneficial uses of Quinte and other aquatic ecosystems in the Great Lakes and beyond are to be sustained. Thus, beyond RAP delisting there is a perpetual need to ensure Quinte and similar areas become “Areas of Sustainability” and that current non-AOC areas around the Great Lakes do not become new AOCs. Completing the restoration of Quinte, a biodiversity and productivity hotspot, and ensuring it is sustainable must be augmented with complete coastal zone ecosystem management plans for each of the Great Lakes.
Project Quinte has been carried along in the growing stream of ecosystem knowledge and understanding. Sampling technologies have changed with the shift from water bottles, to dangled probes, to fully-computerized geo-referenced profilers. Statistical analysis tools have expanded as computer hardware has become smaller. Our knowledge of the lower trophic levels has expanded considerably from plankton to include the “microbial loop” due to advancements in microscopy and imaging techniques. This made it possible to analyse and enumerate picoplankton, bacteria, heterotrophic nanoflagellates and ciliates. Now we can develop a holistic picture of the autotrophic and heterotrophic communities and their linkages (Munawar et al., 2011) which will also enhance food web modeling efforts.
The role of modelling has grown substantially, providing both the means to integrate immense amounts of data and knowledge as well as the ability to predict potential consequences of alternative management actions. For example in Quinte, Diamond et al (1996) provided a basis for remedial actions on a range of chemical contaminants; Minns and Moore (2004) developed a simple model of phosphorus which provided the foundation for a long-term P management strategy; and Koops et al (2006) used ecosystem modelling in a comparative study to help unravel the changes in food web dynamics due to eutrophication and the dreissenid invasion. Yet, the core elements of the Project Quinte monitoring program remain essentially the same thereby providing the means to detect trends, patterns and especially regime changes.
Project Quinte has and continues to serve as a model of the ecosystem approach (Koops et al., 2009) and an anchor and point of reference for a wide range of research studies. Events in Quinte since 1972 have demonstrated the importance of long-term monitoring and research. Regime shifts can be detected only through the deliberate long-term maintenance of well-defined sampling programs. All too often society chooses a self-imposed “environmental myopia” (Silvertown et al., 2010), seeming to prefer reliance on “shifting baselines” (Pinnegar and Engelhard, 2008) based on subjective anecdotal evidence. The set of Project Quinte papers in this and the succeeding issue of AEHM provide ample evidence of the continuing scientific and management benefits of careful long-term monitoring of ecosystem structures and processes.
Supplementary files for this article are available at http://www.aehms.org/Journal/14_1_Minns.Appendix.html