The Mackenzie River Basin covers one-fifth of Canada’s landmass, or about 1.8 million square kilometres, in the western and northern provinces and territories, and consists of six sub-basins. While population in the basin is small, less than half a million people, the Mackenzie River serves a major role in regulating global ocean circulation and Arctic climatic systems. The basin is home and has spiritual, cultural, and food security significance for Indigenous communities.
On behalf of the Mackenzie River Basin Board and a technical steering committee, Environment and Climate Change Canada retained Associated Environmental Consultants and Integral Ecology Group to conduct an aquatic health assessment of the basin. The result of the assessment is the State of the Aquatic Ecosystem Report (SOAER), which guides the Board’s decision-making. The Board includes representatives from Federal and Provincial/Territorial governments, and Indigenous organizations. One of the Board’s duties is to conduct an assessment every five years. The first report was published in 2003. The 2021 edition of the report describes changes to the aquatic ecosystem health, furthers the understanding of conditions and developments in the Mackenzie River Basin, and educates residents on the ecosystem through an intuitive, interactive, and user-friendly website.
“This is the first time this report has been developed following a braided approach, which includes Indigenous knowledge and Western scientific knowledge. We had to figure out how to tell a braided story, bringing together and respecting the value of these knowledge systems, and present a holistic understanding of current conditions and environmental change in the watershed.” - Project Manager, Rebekka Lindskoog
Our project team collaborated extensively with Environment and Climate Change Canada representatives and the Mackenzie River Basin Board committee members to ensure the knowledge systems and braiding are current, representative, and complete for this immense and complex trans-boundary basin.
“Climate change was identified as the most common cause for changes in aquatic ecosystem signs and signals, indicating a widespread impact of this stressor on aquatic ecosystem health across the basin.” - Senior Aquatic Scientist, Dörte Koster
Increased air temperatures and, to a lesser degree, changes in precipitation patterns, have changed ice and flow patterns in rivers, reduced snow cover in many areas, reduced water levels in deltas, and impacted water quality in northern parts of the basin through permafrost slumps. The quality of habitat, such as wetlands in deltas and distribution of fish species, has also been altered. Climate change has also affected access to traditional land-use areas, in particular in the winter in the northern part of the basin, and, thus has impacted the health and well-being of Indigenous communities.
Land use has also impacted aquatic ecosystem health in the basin in many ways, in particular in the Peace and Athabasca sub-basins. Fishing pressure has likely been a contributing factor in many of the historical fish population declines in lakes and rivers across the basin.
Much of the information gathered from Indigenous knowledge and Western scientific sources complement each other
A lesson learned from this study is the complementary nature of Indigenous and Western scientific knowledge sources. Together, they paint a much clearer picture of the status of aquatic ecosystem health and the key pressures upon it, than would be possible by either knowledge system alone. Key changes in the aquatic ecosystem include rising air temperatures, variable water levels, reduced populations of wetland-dependent wildlife, contamination of water and fish, and increased concentrations of ions in rivers.
Information Systems Developer, Jase Zwarich, says, “We worked together to present the online web report in a way that is both appealing and interactive for multiple audiences - residents, decision makers, and government.”