Earth and Environmental Sciences Chair wins career award for work in aquatic sciences

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Society of Canadian Limnologists announced Earth and Environmental Sciences Chair William Taylor as the winner of the 2016 Frank Rigler Award, the society’s highest honour. 

Professor William Taylor

It’s a nice feeling when your colleagues recognize the value of your work,” says Taylor, also a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the Department of Biology and member of the Water Institute.

First presented in 1984, the Rigler Award highlights a Canadian aquatic scientist whose work is widely recognized for its influence and importance. Scientists like David Schindler and Bob Hecky are among the award’s past laureates.

Aquatic Biology has been a cornerstone of the Department since its inception, and this award, addition to honouring Bill’s achievements, reflects Waterloo’s standing in that field," says Biology Chair David Rose.

Taylor spent much of his career studying food webs in freshwater lakes using phosphorus as a tracer.

Phosphorus is the best currency for studying lake food webs,” says Taylor. “That’s why I got into this area.”

An interesting twist to his career came with the 2004 publication of the Near Shore Shunt Hypothesis, a commentary piece that proposed invasive mussels change the way phosphorus cycles in the Great Lakes, which promotes the excessive growth of littoral algae.

The paper, whose authors included Waterloo biologists Dave Barton, Bob Hecky, Stephanie Guildford, and Ralph Smith, was published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences after years of unsuccessful applications for funding to study nearshore-offshore interactions in the Great Lakes.

The Canadian government lost interest in phosphorus in the 1980s. Everyone – even the public – believed we had solved the problem [of algal blooms] by reducing total phosphorus inputs to the lake.” says Taylor.

The article has since become Taylor’s top cited publication, due in large part to the widespread impact of zebra mussels.

"Zebra mussels re-engineered many lakes in region including Lake Erie, putting much more biomass in the nearshore than ever before. Their impact has been very educational,” says Taylor. “Research into phosphorus and its cycling within lakes is hotter than ever now.”

Still, Taylor would like to see decision makers move beyond managing lakes around just nutrient loads and phytoplankton, and consider the rest of the food web.

There’s a lack of know-how to manage lakes as ecosystems,” says Taylor. “Management of nutrients alone cannot rehabilitate ecosystems damaged by invasive species and overfishing.”

He cites Europe and China’s successful management of small lakes by restocking aquatic plants and restoring the balance between predators and prey among the fish.

In addition to invasive species and excess nutrients, persistent contaminants and competing interests between stakeholders can also present challenges to management of our Great Lakes.

Taylor notes there are bright spots, such as the return of raptor populations as endocrine-disrupting chemicals have declined.

“I’ve seen a long, slow evolution over my career,” says Taylor. “We’ve learned a lot about lake food webs.  But not how to manage them.”

As part of the award, Taylor will give a plenary talk at the annual meeting of the Society of Canadian Limnologists in St. John’s, Newfoundland this January.