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Date of Award

Spring 2012

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Biology

Supervisor

Patricia Chow-Fraser

Co-Supervisor

Jonathon Stone

Language

English

Committee Member

Jonathan Dushoff

Abstract

Aquatic vegetation in the pristine coastal marshes of eastern Georgian Bay (GB) provides critical spawning and foraging habitat for fish species, with complex habitat supporting the greatest diversity. These wetlands are threatened by a changing water level regime and forecasted lower water levels. To monitor and conserve these wetlands, we must understand how they function and respond to this stressor. The overall goals of this thesis are to determine the impact of declining water levels on both wetland fish habitat and the fish community as well as identify the spatial scale of habitat utilization by fishes.

We first delineate all coastal wetlands in eastern GB, identifying 3771 wetlands that provide habitat for Great Lakes fishes. Using satellite imagery, we develop an object-based classification method to classify four types of wetland vegetation. Since submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) is not visible from satellite imagery in GB, we develop a model to predict potential area of this important habitat. The model suggests that the response of SAV to declining water levels depends on wetland geomorphology, but generally, the area of SAV decreases. To assess the response of fish habitat coverage and structure to sustained low-water levels, we classify vegetation in images collected in 2002 and 2008. The result is increasingly homogeneous habitat, a net loss of fish habitat and a decrease in fish species richness. Finally, mark-recapture and radio-tracking are used to evaluate fish movement among closely situated wetlands. Results suggest that the current distance used to group and protect small wetlands provincially (750 m), likely protects most resident fish species, but does not cover movement patterns of a top predator. This research will advance our scientific understanding of freshwater coastal ecosystems and aid in the creation of conservation strategies to mitigate future threats from declining water levels.

McMaster University Library

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