by Monica Seidel, Communications and Fundraising Coordinator, Watersheds Canada
This past summer, you might have enjoyed the company of a northern map turtle, green frog, calico pennant dragonfly, or Great Blue Heron along the shores of Georgian Bay. Like you probably did, these charismatic and iconic species spent a large part of their summer near the shoreline. In fact, these species depend on the shoreline and riparian zone for their very survival. This zone includes the first 30-metres of land around a lake, river, or bay and is often seen as a ribbon of life because it supports 70% of land-based wildlife and 90% of aquatic species at some point in their lifetime (Kipp & Callaway, 2003). Wildlife will use this area for food, water, shelter, breeding, and nesting.
In addition to supporting wildlife populations, shorelines are important to Canadians – 53% of surveyed Canadians said natural shorelines was an element that affected their personal enjoyment of being by the lake (Love Your Lake, 2020). Shorelines provide people with important cultural, recreational, and economic opportunities and can be fundamental in shaping our connection and relationship with freshwater and nature from an early age. Ontario is home to more than 250,000 lakes which means many of us have (or know someone who has!) a waterfront property that we can visit and enjoy.
Increasingly though, these important areas and the wildlife that live there are under threat. Over 55% of Canada’s species or unique populations of freshwater fish are at risk (Cooke, et al., 2021), with the Eastern Georgian Bay sub-watershed being scored as “very high” for various threat indicators including pollution, habitat fragmentation, invasive species, and overuse of water (WWF-Canada, 2020). Facing increasing pressures from development and the changing climate, it is important to look at nature-based solutions to protect our freshwater areas.
Planting on-land native vegetation
The best way to create wildlife habitat and protect your shoreline from erosion is to start or enhance a native plant buffer. By planting a variety of native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers, your shoreline will benefit from different root structures that work to hold your shoreline together.
When choosing suitable plants for your shoreline, it is important to consider your site conditions (sunlight, soil, moisture), personal preferences (plant type and height), and goals of planting. If protecting waterfront views is important to you, you will want to plant low growing species. Or, if your main priority is attracting wildlife and pollinator species to your property, you may want to plant a variety of flowering and fruiting shrubs and wildflowers. By choosing many plants that bloom and fruit throughout the year, you will increasingly help local wildlife. Some examples include:
- Wildflowers: Blue Lupine (blooms in spring), Wild Columbine (spring), Wild Bergamot (summer), Common Milkweed (summer), New England Aster (late summer/fall)
- Shrubs: Allegheny Serviceberry (spring/summer), Shrubby Cinquefoil (summer), Black Elderberry (late August),Smooth Arrowwood (fall), Winterberry Holly (winter), Red Osier Dogwood (winter)
A great free tool you can use to pick native plants best suited for your property is the Native Plant Database. This database selects plants based on Canada’s hardiness zones; much of Georgian Bay is located in zone 5b. Once you decide what you want to plant on your property, it is important to consider the size of your buffer. One study found that a 30-metre buffer removed more than 85% of all studied pollutants including suspended sediment, nutrients, and pesticides (Zhang, et al., 2010)!
Compared to turf grass, deep rooted plants like silver maple, black chokeberry, and nannyberry have extensive root systems, making them valuable for filtering runoff and stabilizing loose soils that may be vulnerable to erosion, ice push, and boat wakes. Any sized buffer is better than no buffer at all! Remember that your buffer can be completely customized based on your preferences and budget.
Protecting and enhancing in- and near-water habitat
Another critical component of a resilient shoreline is the presence of different types of habitat features which provide shade and protection for fish, turtles, and macroinvertebrates. Start enhancing in- and near-water habitat this fall by doing…nothing! Fallen branches, leaves, and downed trees in the water and along the shoreline act as a valuable land-water interface for species like northern map turtle and Great Blue Heron and provide protection for fish and frogs. You likely already have some of these features on your property and they simply need to be left alone if it is safe for you to do so.
As for aquatic vegetation, you may have seen these plants and not thought about their many amazing benefits – aside from being beautiful! Aquatic vegetation absorbs wave energy, protects water quality, produces oxygen, takes up nutrients, stabilizes shorelines and bottom sediments, and protects against invasive species and algae competition. They keep busy! In order to experience these full benefits on your property, you are best to manually clear a small path through any existing aquatic vegetation so you can get to deeper waters. You then leave the rest untouched.
If you are looking for more information about taking local action, please visit watersheds.ca/resources to access free fish habitat enhancement guides, plant care guides, and self-assessment tools to help you protect Georgian Bay for years to come.
About Watersheds Canada
Watersheds Canada is a federally incorporated non-profit organization and registered Canadian charity (863555223RR0001) that is committed to building and sharing education and stewardship programs in communities across the country. Since 2002, these programs have engaged and helped youth, property owners, community groups, and organizations enhance and protect the health of their lakes, rivers, and shorelines.
Cooke, S., Lapointe, L., and J. Smol. (2021). Canada is failing its freshwater fish populations. Globe and Mail, 5 March. Available at: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-canada-is-failing-its-freshwater-fish-populations/
Elias, J. and M. Meyer. (2003). Comparisons of undeveloped and developed shorelands, northern Wisconsin, and recommendations for restoration. Wetlands. 23(4): 800–816.
Fathom6 Research. (2013). Freshwater Insights Canada 2013. A National Survey of Canadian Attitudes On Fresh Water – High Level Findings.
Kipp, S. and C. Callaway. (2003). On the Living Edge: Your Handbook for Waterfront Living. Rideau Valley Conservation Authority.
Love Your Lake. (2020). Love Your Lake 2013-2019 Summary Report. Watersheds Canada. Available at: https://watersheds.ca/our-work/love-your-lake/
WWF-Canada. (2020). Great Lakes Basin Watershed Report. World Wildlife Fund Canada. Available at: https://watershedreports.wwf.ca
Zhang, X., Liu, X., Zhang, M., Dahlgren, R.A. and M. Eitzel. (2010). A Review of Vegetated Buffers and a Meta-analysis of Their Mitigation Efficacy in Reducing Nonpoint Source Pollution. J. Environ. Qual., 39: 76-84.
Article originally posted in the fall 2021 Georgian Bay Forever newsletter.