How much conservation is enough? Defining implementation goals for healthy fish communities in agricultural rivers

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“How much conservation is enough?” is one of the most important and difficult questions to answer. In this work, we demonstrate an approach to specifically answer this question for conservation strategies designed to address nonpoint source pollution in agriculturally-dominated watersheds. We developed empirical models relating conservation investments and actions to measures of stream water quality and fish community health. Our results are consistent with other studies that demonstrate a need for extensive implementation of conservation practices in agricultural landscapes to see measurable improvements in ecological conditions. Our results also demonstrate the influence spatial grain can have on answering “how much conservation is enough?” Our coarse-grained analyses suggest that water quality in at the outlets of four watersheds could be improved to the point that water quality was no longer limiting the fish community with only about 18% of the agricultural lands treated with conservation practices and incentive payments totaling $7.7M. Yet, finer-grained subbasin analyses predict fish communities would still be limited in many tributaries of these watersheds even with ~ 50% of lands treated and incentive payments totaling ~$44M. Consequently, coarsegrained analyses could significantly underestimate scope of the solution needed to address these impacts to stream ecosystems. Finding balanced solutions to address agricultural nonpoint source pollution throughout the Great Lakes will require unprecedented collaboration from local to regional scales. Herein, we provide examples of how this work is supporting collaborative efforts to establish realistic ecological goals and associated performance measures and strategic implementation of practices throughout the Saginaw Bay drainage.




Sowa, S. P., Herbert, M., Mysorekar, S., Annis, G. M., Hall, K., Nejadhashemi, A. P., … Doran, P. J. (2016). How much conservation is enough? Defining implementation goals for healthy fish communities in agricultural rivers. Journal of Great Lakes Research, 42(6), 1302–1321.

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