Closing the Gap Between the Science and Management of Cold-Water Refuges

A screenshot of the cold-water refuge team meeting via Zoom
The Cold-Water Refuges team meets via Zoom. 

As global warming continues to pose a threat to aquatic species, cold-water refuge management is a compelling conservation strategy that is expanding worldwide. Cold water refuges are naturally occurring thermally regulated zones within aquatic systems that are well protected from extreme temperature variability and warming.1 They function as critical habitat for freshwater salmonid species, such as salmon and trout, that have niche ecosystem needs and are sensitive to environmental changes. This targeted conservation approach protects these thermal oases for salmonids, who have an important ecological role in addition to their significance as a cultural and economic resource for many communities. Recently, however, there is a growing recognition that knowledge gaps or misalignments between the current states of science and policy may be inhibiting cold-water refuge conservation.  

A recent SESYNC workshop brought together an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the United States, Europe, and Canada to address this issue and grapple with the question, “Does current science support the management and policy needs of cold-water refuges for salmonids in a changing world?” Dr. Valerie Ouellet, a diadromous species scientist working with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Dr. Francine Mejia, Biologist at the United States Geological Survey (USGS), led the workshop. Over the course of the 5-day workshop, 25 participants gathered virtually to collaborate on efforts to synthesize the current states of science, policy, and management related to cold-water refuges to identify research and policy gaps that may be hindering the implementation of cold-water refuge management.

A side-by-side of an aerial photo and computer-generated map showing the thermal differences present in a water channel
The Mill Brook cold-water refuge (outlined in red) flows in the Upsalquitch River in New-Brunswick, Canada. These images display the thermal differences present in the channel; the cold-water refuge is around 8 °C colder than the main channel. The aerial photo was taken by Dr. Steve Dugdale during a field visit in August 2012. The thermal imagery was processed by the Gespe’gewaq Mi’gmaq Resource Council (GMRC) in July 2016.


The interdisciplinary team of participants brought a range of perspectives across the natural sciences, social sciences, and governmental fields. Their array of expertise spanned disciplinary backgrounds such as hydrology, ecology, remote sensing, anthropology, conservation, and genetics. The group’s composition broadened their synthesis effort by viewing the science, policy, and management from different vantage points across the issue of cold-water refuge conservation. Mejia explains that the diversity of researchers “expanded my vision of what we can do in this field and how we can tailor some of the science we are doing to be more directly applied to management.”  

Mejia and Ouellet led daily presentations and lively group discussions that highlighted the tools required and the research questions needing to be addressed to bridge the gap between science and management. Participants discussed key topics such as the importance of creating a common language when describing cold-water refuges that would be useful across science and policy realms. They also examined the significance of choosing the right level of complexity when sharing datasets and modeling tools to influence decision making by policy makers, resource managers, and community partners. 

The group came up with three core questions related to data sharing with non-academic users: 1) How much is enough? 2) When is too much? and 3) What’s good enough? A workshop participant, Dr. Ben Letcher, Ecologist at USGS, shared a data visualization tool he co-developed to help answer these questions, the Interactive Catchment Explorer (ICE). Letcher and his colleagues designed ICE for researchers and managers to explore catchment characteristics and predictions to inform restoration and future inquiry. Although they initially developed ICE to model habitats in the northeastern United States, research groups across the nation now use the tool. It is a great example of a way to process large and complex datasets in a user-friendly way that empowers managers and researchers to communicate with each other to identify potential cold-water refuges. 

Throughout the workshop, the group also leveraged their unique geographical perspectives and shared how their local jurisdictions were managing cold-water refuges. Dr. Carole-Anne Gillis, Research Director at the Gespe’geqaq Mi’gmaq Resource Council in eastern Quebec, Canada, shared how their collaborations locally with resource managers and community members led to the creation of an interactive map that allows stakeholders to identify and map key areas that will enhance the protection of cold-water refuges. 

This speaks to the regionally specific management priorities in North America, where watersheds are less impacted by human activities, and the emphasis is on protection. By contrast in Europe, a more human-dominated system, the focus is on restoration of ecosystem processes. These considerations can inform how scientists develop evidence-based approaches and stakeholders use science within spatial contexts to best manage cold-water refuges.

In addition to group discussions, each day, participants moved into breakout groups that pushed the researchers to lean into the challenge of integrating science and policy goals by asking themselves: What can science learn from policy and what can policy learn from science? The group discussed that science is generally driven by studying a “novel” problem. This research approach does not always align with pressing conservation needs such as future environmental scenarios and multiple management objectives. In addition, policy can oversimplify science to meet legislative objectives and create “one-size-fits-all” monitoring approaches. These key challenges identified through these daily exchanges helped identify science and policy gaps that will move the current state of cold-water refuge management forward into a more integrated and aligned future. 

Workshop participants are planning to continue working together and developing innovative products that explore the issues discussed at the workshop. Mejia and Ouellet will lead this work and are planning to publish a synthesis paper this fall (2021) on the workshop’s content in collaboration with the group’s participants. In addition, they are also considering hosting a webinar and developing communication tools to share their findings with the public. Lastly, the workshop attendees are hoping to plan a special session at the 2021 American Fisheries Society meeting to share their research progress and continue growing this community. 

This recent SESYNC workshop on cold-water refuges cultivated a collaborative space that allowed for learning, discussing, and examining new perspectives to conserve cold-water refuges as socio-environmental systems. This workshop has set in motion a much greater effort of developing a more synergistic relationship between the science, policy, and management of cold-water refuges. Ouellet reflected on the workshop experience in saying “When you bring experts together and they learn from each other, as you are learning yourself, you know you’ve put a great team together!”

George Greer et al., “Evaluating Definitions of Salmonid Thermal Refugia Using in Situ Measurements in the Eel River, Northern California,” Ecohydrology vol. 12, no. 5 (2019):

Rachel Swanwick, SESYNC

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