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Canadian partners make headway on classification system to guide freshwater conservation

A project to extend the Northeast aquatic habitat map across the Canadian border is fostering momentum for freshwater conservation among stakeholders working at different scales toward shared goals.

A project initiated by the Nature Conservancy of Canada last fall to extend the Northeast aquatic habitat map across the border is spurring momentum among diverse partners to address shared conservation priorities in the northern reaches of the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative’s freshwater network.

Considering the fact that the map doesn’t actually exist yet, that bodes well for the future of aquatic conservation in the LCC region.

Although the aquatic classification is still in development, stakeholders across the region can already see themselves in the final product, partly because they are helping to build it.

“We have had great engagement from core and advisory teams that include representatives from government agencies, conservation organizations, watershed associations, and local governments,” said project coordinator William Millar of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

More than just enthusiasm for the project, partners have been contributing data and expertise to help stitch together information about freshwater ecosystems across New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Eastern Quebec in order to address collective objectives for the entire nation. 

“There is a huge push in Canada toward meeting targets for areas of conservation, and our partners are definitely seeing how this project can help with achieving those goals,” said Margo Morrison Director of Conservation Science for the Nature Conservancy of Canada. “We have the collaborative infrastructure in place to help make it happen.”

They also have the foresight to know that finishing the map is only the beginning. Although the classification will take another year to complete, the Nature Conservancy is applying for funding now to support a critical next step: Outreach to stakeholders to show them how to use the classification to direct their efforts toward the greatest conservation needs.

The final product will be a classified spatial dataset of all hydrological systems within maritime Canada, but Morrison said they plan to combine the classification with an index of threats -- such as development and sedimentation -- to create a blueprint that provides big-picture perspective on the best places to do conservation and restoration for partners working at different scales across a 600,000 square-mile area.

“Anything that is happening upstream and on the surrounding landscape can affect the aquatic habitat for fish and other organisms,” said Morrison. “It is exciting to help partners figure out where we can focus our efforts on the land to affect the quality of the aquatic habitat.”

By showing the locations of unique and rare aquatic ecosystems, and the condition of the surrounding watershed, the blueprint will provide a basis for governmental and non-governmental organizations to leverage funding in support of strategic work. 

With guidance on where to start, practitioners will be empowered to apply their in-stream expertise to determine which actions will produce desired results on the ground.  "We have the regional spatial knowledge, but they have the specialized local knowledge," said Millar.  

He added that when they get to the community outreach stage, they can even show groups how to feed local data into the tool, which will be accessible through a user friendly web interface that doesn’t require significant GIS expertise or expensive software.

Over time, they hope the classification will become a means to monitor progress, in addition to a tool for identifying priorities. For example, comparing stream temperature now and ten years from now to see if the needle has moved, and in what direction.

But for now, they are focused on providing an accurate snapshot of aquatic systems to serve as a baseline for future change, and a steppingstone for collaborative conservation in maritime Canada, and beyond. 

Since the final product will be consistent with an existing aquatic map developed by the Eastern Division of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) covering the U.S. portion of the North Atlantic LCC, it will open the door for cross-border conservation of species that need to move freely throughout habitat to survive, despite their country of origin.

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