Use of ecological indicators to assess the quality of Great Lakes coastal wetlands
(2011) 11: 1609-1622
Over 2000 coastal wetland complexes have been identified in the Laurentian Great Lakes watershed, each providing critical habitat for numerous aquatic and terrestrial species. Research has shown there is a direct link between anthropogenic activities (urbanization and agricultural development) and deterioration in wetland health in terms of water quality and biotic integrity. In this study, we evaluate coastal marshes throughout the Great Lakes basin using a suite of published ecological indices developed specifically for coastal wetlands of the Great Lakes (Water Quality Index (WQI), Wetland Macrophyte Index (WMI), and the Wetland Fish Index (WFIBasin)). We surveyed 181 wetlands, including 19 in Lake Superior (11%), 11 in Lake Michigan (6%), 13 in Lake Huron (7%), 92 in Georgian Bay and the North Channel (51%), 18 in Lake Erie (10%), and 28 in Lake Ontario (15%), over a 13 year period (1995–2008). Water quality parameters were measured at every site, while paired fyke nets were used to assess the fish community (132 sites) and macrophytes were surveyed and identified to species (174 sites); all of this information was used to calculate the associated index scores. One-way ANOVA results showed that there were significant differences in wetland quality among lakes. According to the WQI, we found that over 50% of marshes in Lakes Michigan, Erie, and Ontario were in degraded condition, while over 70% of marshes in Lakes Superior, Huron, and Georgian Bay were minimally impacted. Georgian Bay had the highest proportion of wetlands in very good and excellent condition and least number of wetlands in a degraded state. The WMI and WFI showed similar results. This is the largest bi-national database of coastal wetlands and the first study to provide a snapshot of the quality of coastal habitats within the Great Lakes basin. We recommend this information be used to guide conservation and restoration efforts within the Laurentian Great Lakes.