Evidence of meeting #32 for Fisheries and Oceans in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was species.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • David Gillis  Director General, Ecosystems and Oceans Science Sector, Department of Fisheries and Oceans
  • David Burden  Acting Regional Director General, Central and Arctic Region, Department of Fisheries and Oceans
  • Michelle Wheatley  Regional Director, Science, Central and Arctic Region, Department of Fisheries and Oceans

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Rodney Weston

I call this meeting to order.

I'd like to thank our guests for joining us here today. We appreciate your taking the time out of your busy schedules to meet with the committee to share some of your thoughts.

Mr. Gillis, I believe you have a presentation you're going to make. I believe committee members all have a copy. Mr. Gillis, I'd ask that you introduce your associates who are with you and then begin your presentation. Whenever you want to begin, the floor is yours.

April 2nd, 2012 / 3:30 p.m.

David Gillis Director General, Ecosystems and Oceans Science Sector, Department of Fisheries and Oceans

Absolutely, thank you.

Thank you very much, Chair and committee. We're very pleased to be here today.

You'll see that there are three of us, and there's a reason each of us is here. With me is Dr. Michelle Wheatley, regional director of science in the department's central and Arctic region, which includes the Great Lakes basin. We know that's a focus of your questions today. From the science perspective, Michelle will be able to cover those points.

Also with me today is David Burden, who is the regional director general for the central and Arctic region, and as such, he has overall general responsibility for the department's programs in that region.

My name, of course, is Dave Gillis, and I'm the director general for ecosystems science. I have overall national responsibility for the science program related to aquatic invasive species. We are pleased to be here.

Aquatic invasive species is an important element for us. The protection, prevention, and, if necessary, management of these species is an important element of a healthy ecosystem, so it is an important part of the puzzle for us.

As you mentioned, we have a presentation. We've organized it to go from a broad picture to a picture that will focus on the Great Lakes, which I believe would suit your purpose. Along the journey, we're going to start by making clear some definitions and what it is we're talking about when we're talking about aquatic invasive species, what they are, and how they get to us.

I'll give a little bit of the history of the program in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans related to AIS and a quick overview of the current elements of our program. With that as background, we'll then focus on the Great Lakes and speak more specifically about AIS in the Great Lakes context.

I'll move along fairly quickly, Mr. Chair, and then we can have the most time for dialogue.

We're introducing a couple of terms: aquatic invasive species, or AIS; and non-indigenous species, or NIS. We will be talking a little about both.

Non-indigenous species and AIS are similar in that they are species that are not native to the area you find them in. But they are different in the sense that AIS, aquatic invasive species, are those we consider to be causing harm and disruption to the ecosystem. A non-indigenous species may simply exist in the ecosystem—it could be an ornamental species, for instance—that doesn't cause particular harm to the ecosystem, either ecologically or economically.

Having said that, it's not black and white. It's actually a spectrum. It's a matter of risk evaluation, which we will talk quite a bit about in the AIS context today in terms of whether something is non-indigenous or is considered invasive.

I have a few visuals of some of the species we will mention today. We have tunicate species, smallmouth bass, green crab, round goby, zebra mussels, and sea lamprey. These are just a selection of the species we consider to be invasive.

The ecological impact of these varies and is very much dependent on the biology of the animal and how it interacts with its ecosystem and with some of the other uses of the ecosystem, which can cause it to have a negative impact.

Invasive species can come to be an issue for us in a number of ways. They reach us in different ways. Shipping can be a large one, especially, obviously, for the aquatics, which is where our department focuses its efforts. These are regulated by Transport Canada. We'll talk a little further about that in a second.

Obviously, ballast water and attachment to the ships themselves through biofouling are several ways this vector can bring invasive species to us. Similarly, with recreational commercial boating, just moving a recreational boat from one lake to another or from one part of the country to another can accidentally introduce a species where it hadn't been before.

Live trade is another interesting vector, and it can be expressed in several ways. Fishermen use live bait. They may want to move it from one area to another, and then when they're done, they release the bait, maybe without thinking that it could be an invasive species in that ecosystem.

There's also the aquarium trade, the water garden trade, where live plants and animals are brought in for ornamental purposes, and live food fish in markets in our major cities, in particular. This is maybe not one that immediately comes to mind, but there's the biological supply for educational purposes. There are companies that provide animals, some of them live or viable, and if this is not watched, it can be a vector as well.

Of course, we sometimes have wilful, unauthorized introductions of fish into a lake or waterway. Certainly, we see this in smallmouth bass that we'll be mentioning again. Changes in water courses, the establishment of canals and water diversions, cause water to flow where it wouldn't normally. This is obviously an important vector, or it can be for aquatic species as well.

I mentioned shipping and Transport Canada. Our role is to provide advice to Transport Canada on how they can better manage and use shipping regulations to reduce the likelihood that there is going to be an introduction as a result of things like ballast water. Our work with them has been quite successful. We've recently done studies to show that improved regulations have reduced the risk of ballast-water-mediated introductions of species into the Great Lakes. So I think it's a case in point where advice and follow-up management can make a difference.

Turning to the next slide, we're talking a little about the history of the aquatic invasive species program at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. I'm starting with 2002, but our activities in AIS go further back than that. The sea lamprey program, which I know is of interest to the committee, started in 1955, and activities of various types have been going on. More recently, in 2002, the Canadian Council of Fisheries and Aquaculture Ministers developed an AIS task group. Under their auspices, a Canadian action plan to address the risk of aquatic invasive species was developed. It was approved by the council in 2004 and serves as the basis to guide discussions and program aid at all levels in relation to AIS.

DFO was provided with funding to establish a general AIS program in 2005. That funding was B-based initially; it was renewed, and has been on an ongoing basis since 2010. That particular funding brought us an additional $2 million a year to augment the funding that we had earlier for the sea lamprey program, which was $6 million. That gives us $8 million, or just a little more than that, for the sea lamprey program. It's a fairly large program. We also have $2 million a year for all other AIS issues. So those are our resource levels for our national AIS program.

The Canadian Council of Fisheries and Aquaculture Ministers created a more formal committee, the National Aquatic Invasive Species Committee, in 2007. It still goes on today and is a major tool for dialogue between levels of government. All of us have issues and all of us can contribute to dealing with AIS species in the country.

I have several slides now that together will give you a broad overview of what the department's AIS program looks like. I'm dealing with it in pieces. Certainly, each of these pieces, as you wish, might be the topic of further questions and investigations that could carry us beyond today, and we would obviously be able to arrange for folks to come in and elaborate in some of these areas in the future.

The first element is scientific research and advice. These are activities, obviously, that we design with the intent to better understand species that are here, yes, but also species that could come here and be invasive in our ecosystems in Canada. It's to understand their biology, whether or not they would be able to establish here or be likely to, and if they did, then what the consequences of that might be.

This work is highly leveraged. We work with other science functions. In particular, we have a partnership with an NSERC network, an academic network that is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, to do research specifically on aquatic invasive species. It's the Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network. We put some money to assist and augment the NSERC funding there, so it's a powerful leveraging tool. We're actually able to bring a lot of resources that way to these questions.

Another important area for us is risk assessment. Based on our understandings, both that we've collected ourselves and those that we can harvest from general knowledge that's available in science, we look at species for their potential to come to Canada and establish in our ecosystems, and then the consequences of what would happen if they did.

We look at this from an ecological point of view, but in the department we also have capacity and work under way to look at the socio-economic dimension of this as well. These two things together provide a good basis. We've done 23 species to date, and we're now working on new tools to bring a more rapid screening approach that we can use to more quickly augment the picture we have of what might be a threat of an invasive species to Canada.

More elements of our department are early detection and monitoring. We have a component of our program to fund activities in the regions for key species, understanding their pathways, monitoring their locations, determining the spread, or not, of an invasive species in an ecosystem so that we can know where they are, know what the future might look like, and therefore better inform management decisions that might need to be made.

More recently, we've been doing work on legislative and policy development to develop a regulatory package that will augment the tools that are available now for the management, control, and prevention of aquatic invasive species.

Some provinces obviously have an interest in these issues as well, and some have provincial legislation, but what we're looking at is a federal package of legislation that would augment and bring more effect and power to the various provincial jurisdictions in managing issues related to AIS.

The last couple of current departmental activities are, obviously, prevention and mitigation/control/management. Maybe prevention should be the first one because, from a cost-benefit point of view, we can all appreciate that not having an invasive species in the first place is almost certainly the most cost-effective way to deal with it. Our national risk assessments are a key tool for us to identify those threats that are outside our borders but could come toward us, and then inform how we can provide surveillance, watch for these, and design our prevention activities to be most effective.

We do have invasive species, and there are cases where we have been involved in mitigation, control, and management. The sea lamprey program, on which we'll elaborate in a few minutes, is the only one of those that's managed on an ongoing basis, and it has been a funded activity in Canada since the 1950s.

There are also some activities we have under way to develop mitigation techniques in some circumstances. We are now in a three-year program to eradicate the spread of smallmouth bass in Miramichi Lake. That is another example. We have led in the past, and are leading now, some others in relation to green crabs or tunicates in terms of mitigation, control, and management.

With that as a bit of an overview of our national program, we're going to begin to focus in on the Great Lakes. Obviously the Great Lakes are a very large freshwater inland sea shared with our neighbours to the south, the United States. It's a very large system; 22% of the earth's fresh water exists in the lakes. The smallest of the five of them is the 14th largest lake in the world. These are large bodies of water. There are 42 million people from both countries who live in the Great Lakes basin; 30% of Canadians are there, and 98% of Ontarians live there.

The commercial and recreational fishing sectors have a very large value: $7 billion. These sectors include the commercial sector and a recreational fishery for personal use, but also a very important subsector of the recreational fishery, which are the charter boat operators. They generate a lot of revenue as well.

This is a shared jurisdiction, as I've already said, between Canada and the United States. It's Ontario and eight states within the United States that share jurisdiction.

With regard to aquatic invasive species in the Great Lakes, you'll recall that I defined non-indigenous species. We've counted, and this would be variable, approximately 182 non-indigenous species that have been introduced into the Great Lakes since the 1800s. Some of them are well known and have caused significant impact in the lakes. The sea lamprey I've mentioned already, and zebra mussels. Round goby is another small fish species that is now present in the lakes.

We also have species that we spend a lot of time on these days because they're not yet in the Great Lakes. We would prefer that they not be there, so we are doing quite a bit of work to understand the risks the species could pose to our ecosystems if we had them. There are several species of the Asian carp and the northern snakehead that we're keeping a very close watch on at the moment.

There are a couple of slides on some of these species and what's under way with regard to them. The sea lamprey control program, as I mentioned, is the only one that's funded on a sustained basis at the moment. These are animals that are native to the Atlantic ocean and ancillary seas, but they have become adapted in the Great Lakes.

When the seaway was established, probably in the 1920s, they had, and they can have, a significant impact on commercial fishery species in the lake. Canada and the U.S. have a joint management program for sea lamprey. Canada's contribution to that, as I mentioned earlier, is about $8.1 million a year. With the contribution of our American partners in this program we're able to sustain a 90% reduction in sea lamprey populations in the Great Lakes, to the benefit of commercial and recreational activities there. This works through a variety of means. There are lampricides, poisons that are very targeted on this species, and then physical barriers and trapping are also used collectively to manage this population.

There are several other species on the next slide. We have had several species of mussels come in, in ballast water we expect. They have several impacts. They're very efficient filter feeders. They remove a lot of material from the water, which has a range of impacts, some of which are negative for species and some of which may be positive for species that do better in more clear water.

They also have other aspects to them. They outcompete native species that may do the same thing, and we have lost several species of native mussels as a result. They can blanket the bottom and suffocate other native species. And of course there's the well-known problem of them multiplying and filling pipes and other infrastructure that's put in the water, creating a cost for industries that depend on those infrastructures. They have to manage that impact.

The round goby is a small fish species that was again introduced, we think, through ballast water related to international shipping. It's also spread through bait use; it's a small fish that's used for that purpose as well. They compete with native fish, but then they're also food for some other native fish. So it's a complicated equation with this one, and again it illustrates the complexity of dealing with a species sometimes. Once it has come in to your ecosystem, it can have a range of effects.

There are several more, and these are the ones that are not currently in the Great Lakes system, and we would prefer to keep it that way. There are several species of Asian carp we're watching for, but we're focused really on two. These obviously have spread through the U.S. midwestern states and have approached the U.S. shoreline in the Great Lakes system quite closely in recent years. These are very rapidly growing species. They can grow to quite a large size. They consume a lot of material in the lower trophic levels, and they each have their own specific food items that they focus on, but collectively they can take out a lot of the food biomass. They compete very effectively with native species for space, for food, and for reproductive potential in freshwater systems. One of them you may have seen on the news or on YouTube has the unusual habit of jumping clear of the water when it's disturbed by something going by, like a boat, and it can actually be a quite significant physical hazard for those who are moving around in small boats. That's obviously a feature of that species.

Northern snakehead is another fish species that I believe is from eastern Asia—I'm not sure. It is present now in the U.S. eastern states. It's a very voracious predator. It can be a fairly large fish as well. It's a predator of other fish species and is very tough. The small juvenile-sized animals can migrate over land from one wet area that may be drying to another one and can live for an extended period of time. They have an unusual breathing apparatus that allows them to get by for quite a time—it could be days—out of the water by making use of the air. Again, it's a very persistent migrator, and obviously well-equipped to spread from one area to another, but it's not yet in Canadian waters.

Mr. Chairman, that is our quick overview. I hope it has provided a broad perspective on the department's program. We haven't delved into other areas. We tried to focus in on the Great Lakes because we saw that was the focus of your questions. We are certainly prepared to entertain questions and comments as you wish.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Rodney Weston

Thank you very much, Mr. Gillis.

We'll start off with Ms. Davidson.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Patricia Davidson Sarnia—Lambton, ON

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

Thank you to our presenters here this afternoon.

Certainly this is a study that's of prime interest to me, coming from the Sarnia area. We have heard a lot in the community over the last couple of years about the concerns with Asian carp, and before that of course we dealt with issues of zebra mussels and round gobies. I recall from when I was chair of the water treatment plant, which supplies the drinking water to most of our county, the concerns we had when the zebra mussels started, with the clogging of the intake pipes and all of the extra work that had to be done to make sure the intakes were open and able to bring in the water, the Great Lakes water, to be treated for drinking.

So it's not anything new in our area to be dealing with invasive species. But I think the Asian carp threat is one that has really raised awareness in the population. I think one of the things that puts the most fear in people is the carp's jumping ability, the leaping ability, and the reports and the stories about them jumping right into small boats.

As well as a thriving sport and commercial fishery, we also have a thriving tourism industry, so we're not only looking at the problems with sport fishing and commercial fishing, but we're also looking at the many people who come to enjoy our waterways, with skiing, jet skiing, pleasure boating, and so on. So the Asian carp issue is certainly stressful for people in my area of the Great Lakes.

I know we've been doing some work back and forth with the American government, trying to put things in place to make sure the Asian carp does not get into the Great Lakes. I have a specific question on the report that was released. The Great Lakes Commission and the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence cities initiative had commissioned the study that focused on the physical separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River watershed to prevent the movement in either direction of the Asian carp. There were three possible options that were put forward in the report, but there was no preferred option recommended in the report.

Do you have any comments on the apparent need for the physical separation of the watersheds in question or any comments on what work has been done with the American and Canadian governments at this point?

3:55 p.m.

Director General, Ecosystems and Oceans Science Sector, Department of Fisheries and Oceans

David Gillis

I'll defer to my colleague from the region.

3:55 p.m.

David Burden Acting Regional Director General, Central and Arctic Region, Department of Fisheries and Oceans

Thank you for your question.

A lot of the work we're doing currently is all about partnerships. There is a very good partnership between the state and federal levels across all the states, as well as here at home with the Province of Ontario. The study you're referring to by the Great Lakes cities and St. Lawrence Seaway mayors is a study that was to support work that the Army Corps of Engineers is doing for the United States government, looking at that physical separation.

It is an American product. We have been briefed on it through some of our binational committee meetings. I'm not certain physical separation is the end-all for these problems of invasive species, because as David mentioned in his remarks, there are other vectors where these critters can get into Canada, live trade being one way that gives us cause for concern. But there is an awful lot of work being done on the American side on that. I can't say with certainty, but I think there are another couple of years of work left on that study.

A number of different approaches are being looked at, but I think the most important element of this is that at this point, while we may be finding eDNA above the barriers, the physical barriers that are in place do seem to be working, and we have not had any Asian carp getting into the upper waters coming into Canada.

4 p.m.

Conservative

Patricia Davidson Sarnia—Lambton, ON

Thank you.

One of the things I came across when we were doing some research on this invasive species was in a paper released by the American Conservation Letters journal. Biologists with the University of Notre Dame and the Nature Conservancy claim that there's DNA evidence to support the notion that the invasive Asian carp have gotten past the electric barrier.

Do you have any comments on or knowledge about that?

4 p.m.

Acting Regional Director General, Central and Arctic Region, Department of Fisheries and Oceans

David Burden

Back in 2003, some live carp were found in Lake Erie. That precipitated our study in 2005. Those carp that were found were actually brought in. When we did the genetics on them, it was proven that they were sterile, so they weren't breeding stock. That was the good news. It helped frame our initial study on Asian carp. The other element is that there haven't been any new findings since back in 2003.

4 p.m.

Conservative

Patricia Davidson Sarnia—Lambton, ON

Does the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement contain commitments on aquatic invasive species?

4 p.m.

Acting Regional Director General, Central and Arctic Region, Department of Fisheries and Oceans

David Burden

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is up for renewal, as you may be aware. We've gone through the four plenary sessions. The two federal governments are in the final stages of reviewing the agreement. The drafts and the mandate we had in negotiating the agreement did, in fact, have an annex related to aquatic invasive species. It is the expectation that there will, in fact, be language and protocol within the agreement to deal with the prevention of Asian carp and the management of those type of species through the agreement.

4 p.m.

Conservative

Patricia Davidson Sarnia—Lambton, ON

I have a quick question on the northern snakehead. I find from the information about it that it is scarier, I think, than the Asian carp. It's not something we're hearing a lot about locally. I think it's because the word isn't out there yet. People aren't aware of it.

Can you tell me a little bit more about it? Where is it now? What is the possibility of it expanding its reach?

4 p.m.

Director General, Ecosystems and Oceans Science Sector, Department of Fisheries and Oceans

David Gillis

The northern snakehead is native to east Asia but has been brought in as a live food-trade fish. It may have been brought in as well for the aquarium trade. The smaller animals are attractive there.

They are currently established in areas of the midwestern United States and in various spots otherwise. We have reports from places such as Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York State. The issue there may be that they are independent releases of fish rather than a spread. However, there does seem to be an area now, in the centre of the midwestern United States, where there have been escapes, and they have become established and are breeding in an area.

We have a risk assessment that has been completed on the northern snakehead. I think we have some sense of how they may move. I believe that the most visible threat would be the live trade—the live food and movement vector. That is what we would be most worried about in the case of the snakehead.

Michelle, did you have anything to add to that?

4:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Rodney Weston

Thank you very much.

We'll go to Ms. Doré Lefebvre.

4:05 p.m.

NDP

Rosane Doré Lefebvre Alfred-Pellan, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you for coming here to contribute to our study on invasive species in the Great Lakes.

I would like to quickly go back to what you just said about the snakehead. Do you know whether this population is expanding quickly in the Great Lakes?

4:05 p.m.

Director General, Ecosystems and Oceans Science Sector, Department of Fisheries and Oceans

David Gillis

There is no snakehead known to be in the Great Lakes. It's not present in the Great Lakes now. It is one of the key species we are concerned about as a threat that could come to the Great Lakes, but there are no snakehead at the present time.