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David Bywater

Killarney, Georgian Bay


When we think about Georgian Bay, images of islands, cobalt blue water, colourful rocks and windswept pines often come to mind, iconic scenes celebrated through the works of many artists including members of the Group of Seven.  It’s the same natural beauty of Georgian Bay that draws thousands of visitors each year to fish, swim, boat, and just relax along the shorelines.  The quality of their experience is linked to the quality of the natural surroundings; hence a healthy environment is essential to our local economy.

How would you respond if asked for your view on the environmental health of Georgian Bay?  Your answer is likely influenced by where you live, how long you’ve been there, and what activities you do.  While eastern and northern Georgian Bay are considered to be in good condition compared to the other Great Lakes, they are still subject to pressures from invasive species, water levels, development and other human impacts.  To help monitor these changes the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve (GBBR) and its partner organizations initiated the State of the Bay project.

State of the Bay Partners

Project partners came together in 2010 to begin discussions on the need for raising awareness about “the state of Georgian Bay” – by selecting key indicators that summarize the ecosystem health of the Bay.  Beyond the science, the report is intended to highlight ongoing conservation and stewardship projects and how you can become more involved.  State of the Bay project partners include:

Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve
Georgian Bay Association
Georgian Bay Forever
Eastern Georgian Bay Stewardship Council
Georgian Bay Land Trust
Muskoka Watershed Council

State of the Bay Products

The State of the Bay project has three main components:

  1. A 16 page, magazine-style, Public Report Card for eastern and northern Georgian Bay.  This report card summarizes the key findings of each indicator and environmental issue.
  2. A Background Report that forms the basis of the public report card and provides details about each indicator, outlines programs and practices to encourage public participation and stewardship (in relation to each indicator and environmental issue), and outlines data gaps and research needs.
  3. A State of the Bay project website ( ) that profiles the Public Report Card, the Background Report, report card maps, and ways to get involved in environmental monitoring programs and stewardship practices.
David Bywater

Georgian Bay

Ecosystem Health Indicators

Following the model of watershed report cards, the State of the Bay report presents information about key ecosystem health indicators along Georgian Bay.  Key indicators were selected in the areas of water quality, wetlands, fisheries, and landscape in order to provide a science-based snapshot of conditions from Honey Harbour to Killarney-McGregor Bay.  The State of the Bay project aims to summarize existing scientific reports about the Great Lakes, Lake Huron, and Georgian Bay, and bring it down to smaller regions of the Bay, so readers can learn about environmental conditions and trends in their own backyards.

The whole process of choosing ecosystem health indicators to effectively communicate complex science to the public raised a number of questions:

  • Is the indicator a good barometer of ecosystem health?
  • Do the indicators tell a meaningful story?
  • Is the indicator data available/affordable and will it continue to be available in the future?
  • Can the results be “graded” and what is an ‘A’ score over a ‘B’?
  • One of the biggest challenges was how to address ecosystem diversity – from nearshore areas to outer islands.  How to compare or average these results would be like comparing apples and oranges.
  • Another concern was about at what (regional/community) scale the results should be presented?  Clearly giving the entire Georgian Bay a single grade would not be meaningful.

A number of factors informed the selection process for the ecosystem health indicators, including: public consultation, advice and guidance from scientists, an ecosystem health workshop, and a literature review.  After selecting the six ecosystem health indicators, background research was carried out in order to identify available data sources, benchmarks, and information relevant to Georgian Bay.  However, there are certain instances where data does not exist.  In other words, it has not been collected through government, university, or community research and monitoring programs.   Data gaps are considered to be an important outcome of the report card project.  By flagging these data needs, hopefully they will be strategically filled and inform future report cards.  Effective monitoring programs, such as the Lake Partner Program, provide long-term data that help establish trends.  The reporting cycle for showing changes is typically 4-5 years and the project partners are hopeful that these gaps will be met in that timeframe through partnerships, community monitoring, and more research.

David Bywater

French River, Georgian Bay

The six ecosystem health indicators selected for the 2013 State of the Bay report card are:

  1. Phosphorus as an indicator of water quality;
  2. Fish community health;
  3. Percentage of natural cover (terrestrial);
  4. Percentage of large natural areas (water and landscape);
  5. Percentage of coastal wetland cover; and
  6. Wetland macrophyte (plants) as an indicator of wetland quality.

Each of these ecosystem health indicators has been described, measured, and reviewed by experts.  Together they provide a snapshot of the health of Georgian Bay and provide a baseline for future years.  For some ecosystem health indicators not enough data was available and more research is needed to define what should be measured.  Please read the Background Report to learn about the data gaps and research needs of each indicator.

During the process of identifying and selecting the ecosystem health indicators it was decided that the State of the Bay 2013 report card should also report on key environmental issues facing Georgian Bay.  These three issues are: Water Levels; Invasive Species; and Species at Risk.  They are presented and discussed in both the Public Report Card and Background Report

Boundaries and Regions

The scale for reporting was decided through a public survey.  Over 250 people responded to questions about how they would like the report card presented.  Not surprisingly, the overwhelming response was at the scale of a “community or neighbourhood”; this reflects a strong sense of people’s place and attachment to their cottage associations or waterfront towns.  Because of this connection, and because the data available can be analyzed at a regional level, the report card shows results for ten regions.

GBBR_SotB_report card regions

State of the Bay Report Card Regions

The overall boundaries for the State of the Bay report card were determined by the project’s Steering Committee (list of Steering Committee members is provided in the Background Report).  The report card generally follows the UNESCO GBBR boundaries (visit to learn more about GBBR boundaries), with the exception of the addition of the McGregor Bay and Killarney areas.  The boundary for these areas roughly follows the Great Lakes Heritage Coast project boundary, which is also the basis for the GBBR boundaries.  As noted above, public consultation helped to inform the designation of the report card ‘regions.’  The boundaries between regions predominately uses sub-watershed boundaries.  The total area of the State of the Bay report card is 474,071 hectares.

Funding for State of the Bay Project

Special thanks goes to the Ontario Trillium Foundation, RBC Bluewater, the Canada-Ontario agreement respecting the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem (COA), the Lake Huron Framework for Community Action, and to the many businesses, municipalities, and organizations who have become sponsors of the program.


Many photographers generously donated their images to this project. Thank you to all of them, especially those whose businesses are linked below: