Update On State Of The St. Lawrence Monitoring Indicators: Biomonitoring (Room A)

Biomonitoring of the St. Lawrence River Using Benthic Macroinvertebrates

Picture of Alain Armellin

Alain Armellin

Project manager, Aquatic Fauna and Flora
Water Quality Monitoring and Surveillance, Atlantic Watershed
Environment Canada


Trained in biology as well as in Environment and Prevention at UQAM and Université de Montréal, Alain Armellin has been a specialist in water quality biomonitoring since 2004 at the Water Sciences and Technology Directorate, Water Quality Monitoring and Surveillance, Atlantic Watershed section, of Environment Canada. Since 2006, he has coordinated activities at the Canadian Aquatic Biomonitoring Network (CABIN) in Quebec.


This presentation provides an overview of the health of aquatic ecosystems through the analysis of changes in the composition of benthic invertebrate communities. Given their diversity and abundance, invertebrates exhibit a wide range of sensitivity responses to disturbances and, as a result, effectively complement physical and chemical monitoring of water and sediment. Monitoring of freshwater benthic communities has been carried out in Lake Saint-Pierre since 2004; in Lake Saint-Louis and the fluvial section between Montréal and Sorel since 2007; and in Lake Saint-François since 2009, with a total of 180 sites analyzed. Laboratory analysis of macroinvertebrate communities was conducted for each sampling site. Based on these results, researchers established a series of metrics or measurements to show each community’s composition, richness, diversity and pollution tolerance. The metrics used in determining the state of benthic communities were the number of families and the percentage of Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera, Trichoptera and Oligochaetes. The most highly degraded benthic communities are those in the fluvial section, around the Berthier-Sorel archipelago and, to a lesser extent, on the north shore of Lake Saint-François. These sites were significantly less rich in macroinvertebrates and had a high proportion of Oligochaetes, which are highly pollution-tolerant worms.


The methods used by Environment Canada and Quebec’s Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement, de la Faune et des Parcs (MDDEFP) produced comparable results. However, the MDDEFP’s monitoring was designed for small watercourses, while that of Environment Canada, although initially designed for small watercourses, was adapted to large rivers such as the St. Lawrence.

Health of Freshwater Fish Communities in the St. Lawrence

Picture of Yves Paradis

Yves Paradis

Coordinator, Réseau de suivi ichtyologique (RSI)
Direction de la faune aquatique
Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement, de la Faune et des Parcs


Yves Paradis trained in biology and environmental sciences at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR), and specializes in the monitoring and management of freshwater fish in the St. Lawrence River. His work focuses on the dynamics of freshwater sport and commercial fish populations, and on the management of these stocks. He is also involved in coordinating the fish monitoring network and has participated in various studies on fish in the St. Lawrence.


Experimental fishing at monitoring network sites confirms the great diversity of fish communities in the St. Lawrence River. In all, around 100 freshwater and diadromous fish species are found in various parts of the river, depending on physical conditions and habitat preferences. Since 1995, most biotic integrity index (BII) values, developed to evaluate the health of fish communities in the St. Lawrence, have fallen into the “low” or “average” categories, with the health of the St. Lawrence showing a downward trend. In 1995 and in 1997, the health of the St. Lawrence’s fish populations was considered “low” in 45% of the fluvial portion, compared to 71% in 2001 and 2006. This trend is corroborated by the decline of certain fish species. It is worth noting that the index used varies considerably based on sample years and areas. Depending on the sector, the selected descriptors show improvements or deteriorations and, in certain cases, demonstrate success in improving the state of certain fish populations through sustained efforts from management plans.


While the fish anomaly metric took on considerable significance during the 1990s, there is a growing interest in the tumour metric. More information about the latter metric is still to come.

A large increase in the number of goby catches was observed. This increase surely affects the index calculation; too much statistical weight in the calculation can be suspected. The Striped Bass is another burgeoning indicator showing that the St. Lawrence is healthy. There are also indicators for the gulf that are the responsibility of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Some consideration should be given to integrating the various indicators.

Yellow Perch have rapidly declined in Lake Saint-Pierre in recent years, but we are seeing the opposite in, say, Lake Saint-Louis. Sturgeon populations seem to be improving as well. It is difficult to obtain a single rating, and these mixed results make synthesis a formidable challenge.

Monitoring of Seabird Populations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Picture of Jean-François Rail

Jean-François Rail

Seabird Biologist
Canadian Wildlife Service
Environment Canada


Jean-François Rail has been working with seabirds since he joined the Canadian Wildlife Service in 1995 -- the same year he completed a master’s degree in wildlife management at Université Laval. In addition to leading surveys to monitor seabird population trends, mainly in the Gulf and estuary of the St. Lawrence, he regularly collaborates on biological studies aimed at understanding the causes of the trends observed among seabirds.


In the migratory bird sanctuaries of the North Shore, populations of the various seabird species have fluctuated in a divergent but relatively constant fashion over the last 20 years. In contrast, monitoring of the Northern Gannet on Bonaventure Island shows a major change in the environment. The population, which maintained itself well over the last 30 years, has shown a decline since 2009, as well as worrying signs that include a reproductive success rate that is too weak to maintain the population.


Every year, Environment Canada conducts inventories in five different regions in the estuary and the Gulf of St. Lawrence (on a five-year cycle), and the staffing requirements differ according to the region. In some cases, such as the Watshishou Migratory Bird Sanctuary on the North Shore, many volunteers are needed to cover hundreds of islands. Parks Canada issues calls for volunteers in this particular case. Volunteers interested in participating in inventories should contact Jean-François Rail.

Monitoring Marine Water Quality in Shellfish Areas

Picture of Jacques Sénéchal

Jacques Sénéchal

Manager, Marine Water Quality Monitoring – Quebec Region
Water Quality Monitoring and Surveillance Division
Environment Canada


Jacques Sénéchal has been manager of the Marine Water Quality Section (MWQS) since 1992. He received a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Université Laval. At Environment Canada, he manages the MWQS program’s activities in support of the Canadian Shellfish Sanitation Program (CSSP), assessing health-related conditions in mollusk raising and harvesting areas. He conducts sampling surveys and measures, among other things, the levels of fecal coliforms in the water. He issues classification recommendations for the shellfish sector to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Working with local and governmental partners, he helps make users aware of how to correct sources of contamination.


The main objectives of the Canadian Shellfish Sanitation Program (CSSP) are to protect public health, promote the industry's development and eliminate pollution sources. Three federal entities are involved in implementing this program: Environment Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Environment Canada's responsibilities are to identify pollution sources, monitor the bacteriological quality of water and make site classification recommendations to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. In 2012, a total of 280 shellfish areas were classified as follows: 113 approved, 22 conditionally approved and 145 restricted and prohibited. Among these 280 areas, 173 were sampled in 2012. 53 closed shellfish areas where resources are abundant have been prioritized in order to reduce the amount of contaminants and improve the quality of water. These areas were selected as indicators in order to measure changes in the health of coastal waters in the estuary and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Over the last ten years, water quality has improved in many shellfish areas, including five that have been re-opened to harvesting. The level of monitored contaminants should diminish in the medium term.

Recent Trends in Physical and Chemical Conditions in the Estuary and the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Picture of Denis Gilbert

Peter Galbraith (replaced by Denis Gilbert)

Physical oceanography researcher
Environmental and Ocean Sciences Branch
Fisheries and Oceans Canada


Peter Galbraith is a physical oceanography researcher who studies the winter climate of water masses in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and its persisting influence on the summer conditions that follow. He sits on the Atlantic Zone Monitoring Program permanent management committee and is responsible for delivering its scientific program in the Quebec region. With the input of colleagues, he also produces an annual research document on the state of the ocean, on the physical oceanography of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.


Recent trends in surface, intermediate and deep water temperatures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence have shown significant changes in recent years. The May-to-November average surface temperature shows a trend towards a 0.9 °C increase per century, but the warming trend has been sharper in the past 20 years. Most of the warmest years are recent, with August 2012 likely breaking a century-old record. The summer cold intermediate layer (35 to 125 m deep) experienced the warmest temperatures since 1985 in 2012 and the coldest in 2003. The deep water temperature shows a warming trend of 2.2°C at a depth of 300 m, but this does not seem to be predictive of future changes. However, this increase in deep water temperature is accompanied by a decrease in dissolved oxygen, causing hypoxia in the environment. The length of the ice season, ice volume and ice extent have all shown a downward trend since about 1990. Since 1969, only the winters of 1969, 2010 and 2011 have seen next to no ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Ocean acidification is an emerging problem associated with the increase in atmospheric CO2 and microbial respiration. A significant decrease in pH (increase in acidity) in the bottom waters of the St. Lawrence estuary of approximately 0.3 units has been observed since the 1930s. These waters are acidifying at least three times more quickly than the open oceans. Other indicators such as the calcite and aragonite saturation states are also determined using pH and alkalinity measurements. The bottom waters of the St. Lawrence estuary are nearly undersaturated in terms of calcite and clearly undersaturated in terms of aragonite.

Recent Changes in Phytoplankton and Zooplankton Communities in the Estuary and the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Picture of Patrick Ouellet

Patrick Ouellet

Fisheries and Oceans Canada


Patrick Ouellet has been a researcher at the Maurice Lamontagne Institute since 1993. He has led many research projects on the biology and ecology of the young stages of fish and invertebrates, as well as on the study of processes responsible for annual variations in the recruitment of harvested fish populations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. His work applies an ecosystemic approach to the integration of oceanographic and halieutic sciences. He presided over Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s (DFO) working group on the oceanography of fish and was one of the lead members of the Atlantic Zone Monitoring Program until 2010. From 2009 to 2012, he was one of the coordinators of the regional streams of DFO’s Ecosystem Research Initiative (for Quebec – a project on the lower (marine) estuary of the St. Lawrence).


Fisheries and Oceans Canada implemented the Atlantic Zone Monitoring Program (AZMP) with the aim of regularly collecting a minimum set of physical, chemical and biological oceanographic data in the estuary and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The objective is to create databases necessary for describing and eventually predicting seasonal, interannual and decennial phenomena that govern this ecosystem.

An initial indicator relates to the change observed in phytoplankton communities. Diatom/dinoflagellate and diatom/flagellate ratios are good indicators of environmental change as these two phytoplankton groups respond differently to the environment, particularly to nutrient inputs and water column stratification. Warmer waters, increased run-off and eutrophication tend to promote dinoflagellates and flagellates. A change in the relative abundance of the groups has been observed since 1999, as has a trend towards an increase in flagellates and dinoflagellates over the past decade. A second indicator concerns mesoplankton and, more specifically, various species of the genus Calanus, in which significant interannual variations have been observed. The findings point to a significant decrease in size (prosoma length) of Calanus finmarchicus females and clutch size since 1993. A toxic algae monitoring program was launched in 1989 and put on hold in 2010. One of the program's major findings was that, although there was no clear upward trend, an unprecedented bloom had occurred in the St. Lawrence estuary in 2008. During this Alexandrium tamarense bloom, many marine mammals and thousands of birds and fish were found dead in the estuary.