Sunfish Water Testing and Research

Although ice currently covers Sunfish Lake our cyanobacteria testing and water research has been continuing throughout the autumn and winter. The researchers from the University of Western Ontario wrapped up their daily testing at the end of October and they have been running samples and growing our cyanbacteria, planktothrix, and aquatic fungi in their labs all winter. They hope to return in the coming weeks with Dr. Francis Pick from the University of Ottawa (Francis is one of the top freshwater researchers in the world) to take 1m to 3m long sediment core samples from the bottom of the lake. This will allow them to look back decades and tell us things about how the lake used to be. Apparently, It is easiest for them to set up their equipment and drill through the ice in winter than to work from boats at other times of the year.

Our University of Waterloo team is also doing analysis in their labs of the septic soil samples they collected from around the lake this past summer (they freeze-dried them) as well as doing analysis and heat-mapping of all the data collected over the past few years. Others such as Artificial Intelligence researcher and PhD candidate Jason Deglint continues lab work to perfect their cyanobacteria sensors, the folks at H2O Geomatics are continuing work on their aerial drone hyper-spectrum analysis software, and Jill Crumb from Treefrog Environmental is conferring with US researchers and looking into possible organic solutions using barley straw to help constrain the growth of our cyanobacteria in the future.

Overall, everyone feels that our research over the past year was a tremendous success. While we did not experience a cyanobacteria outbreak similar to the year before during the summer months as many had predicted, it was clear that we had all the right ingredients and likely only a cooler summer helped to prevent an outbreak until the very end of the season when we did record cyanobacteria issues in several locations around the lake in late November.

We ended up doing far more research and testing than anticipated and while we exceeded our initial budget estimate, we ended up receiving many tens of thousands of dollars worth of work and laboratory analysis of our water by the University of Western Ontario, the University of Waterloo Labs, the Ministry of Natural Resources Toronto Laboratory, and the Dorset Centre for Freshwater Lakes Research at no cost or just the cost of raw materials to the Sunfish Lake Association. Many days dozens of water samples from numerous locations around the lake and watershed and at many different lake depths were being analyzed for us for free instead of normally costing hundreds of dollars each because of so many hours of exhausting lab work for each sample.

While we have not found a single “smoking gun” or an easy “silver bullet” solution, we do now know:

1) That can now say with confidence that our creeks are frequently exceeding the thresholds for phosphorus and nitrogen enough to cause cyanobacteria outbreaks, though no consistent patterns have been found yet in the creeks and many high levels seem to defy any sort of logic or rationale – what should have been our most pristine creeks were sometimes showing the highest levels,

2) We have found that our levels of phosphorus at the bottom of the lake are exceptionally high despite it being an anaerobic environment devoid of oxygen and there is no easy way to remove this large amount of phosphorus that has built up over time and sits there waiting to fuel a cyanobacteria outbreak when the conditions are right,

3) Most interestingly we have discovered a significant layer of planktothrix (a type of cyanobacteria) spanning Sunfish Lake that seems to be able to move up and down throughout the water column en masse rising close to the surface when conditions are favourable, spending most of its time living in the middle depths of the lake (right before the thermocline to 5C), but then confoundingly having the ability to drop down into the lowest toxic layers of the lake and survive there quite happily when required.

The fact that this planktothrix is thriving in our dark, cold waters when cyanobacteria normally prefers warm, bright waters is fascinating our researchers. This type of cyanobacteria has the potential to be toxic however, as long as it is happy it apparently won’t spread its toxins that can be so damaging to our livers and brains. Interestingly, there is a theory that it is this plantothrix layer that is creating our high oxygen levels that our fish need and is one of the reasons why Sunfish has unexplicably such a thriving fishery for a small meromictic lake our size, so we might not want to hurry to try to eliminate it (if even possible) until we know a lot more about it,

4) In addition to the cyanobacteria issues, our lake is still seeing rising e-coli and fecal coliform levels with indications that there could be multiple sources for these nasty bacteria that regularly cause illness around the world.

More information, current research, and historical studies on Sunfish Lake can all be found on the excellent new Sunfish Lake Website – – a fantastic resource and work in-progress under development by Kate Guy and her team at Digital Chaos.

Next Steps

Our researchers, team of water volunteers, and the Lake Association Executive are trying to figure out the optimal path forward. We need to continue to research these issues but it will be difficult to sustain the level of efforts of this past year and the thousands of hours that have gone into things. In addition to trying to do research to understand the issues and potential sources of excess nutrients in the lake, we will still need to do regular monitoring and testing of the lake water just to ensure that it safe to swim or use in any way at a level that is comprehensive enough to give us comfort. We will try to present a plan with proposed costs and required resources in the weeks ahead.

Overall this is an extremely complex issue that has serious long-term health and economic repercussions for everyone at Sunfish Lake. While we have been able to answer many questions and start to get a good feel for what is “normal” at Sunfish Lake, we have also uncovered almost as many confounding questions/issues that no one can explain – everything from this migrating planktothrix layer to why the lake was so unusually clear with an astounding 8m of visibility this autumn – unlike anyone can ever recall or has ever been recorded. Nobody can even explain to us seemingly simple things such as why the lake goes green each July as so far every theory has turned out to not be the cause when researched (latest theory is that it isn’t algae, or pollen, or bacteria, or cyanobacteria but actually a fungi in a complex relationship with our planktothrix).

It will be essential for us to continue a war on nutrients and do everything possible to try to reduce phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrients within our lake watershed in an effort to reduce the likelihood of future cyanobacteria outbreaks with our lake becoming toxic and unusable like other lakes are experiencing.

Thanks again to Nancy Carlisle-Weaver, Rob Hutchison, Bob Hudgins, Sue Hart, and all our external researchers for all their extraordinary efforts in every sort of weather imaginable over the past year.