Regional reference variation provides ecologically meaningful protection criteria for northern World Heritage Site



Unprecedented rates of resource development and climate change at northern latitudes coupled with a lack of baseline information limits our ability to set ecologically meaningful criteria needed to protect these inherently sensitive ecosystems. We surveyed water and sediment chemistry, community composition of benthic algae and invertebrates and fish, and condition of a sentinel fish species, slimy sculpin (Cottus cognatus), in 2 rivers adjacent to metal mines and in 20 reference rivers in the headwaters of a World Heritage Site, the South Nahanni River Basin, NWT, Canada. The normal range (i.e., mean ± 2 standard deviations) of biological conditions in regional reference sites (grouped by community type) were used to set ecologically meaningful effect sizes. These effect sizes were used in noncentral hypotheses tests to assess the ecological condition of potentially impaired sites. Significant impairments at sites influenced by current and historical mining activity were indicative of mild enrichment (e.g., increased benthic abundance and sculpin condition) and bioaccumulation of metals (e.g., increased concentrations of Cu and Fe in muscle tissue of sculpin). Comparisons between our regional reference study and a concurrent upstream–downstream study showed that the sensitivity of biological endpoints was typically related to the impairment criteria used and not to the type of study design. Concentrations of metals such as Al, Cu, and Fe in river water at reference sites were above federal and regional guidelines, suggesting that these guidelines are not appropriate for the metal-rich headwaters of the South Nahanni River. The ephemerellid mayflies Drunella spinifera and Ephemerella maculata were present in 4 of our study sites; their occurrence had not previously been documented in the Yukon or Northwest Territories. Our results confirmed that the lack of baseline information on the physiochemical and biological composition of northern rivers is hampering our ability to evaluate changes in these understudied ecosystems. However, the use of noncentral hypotheses tests based on empirically derived effect sizes enabled us to develop ecologically meaningful protection criteria, maintain statistical rigor, and provide probabilities of impairment that can be used directly in risk assessment. Integr Environ Assess Manag 2010; 6:12–27. © 2009 SETAC