Evidence of meeting #39 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 organisms.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Hugh MacIsaac  Professor, Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, University of Windsor, and Director, Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network

May 16th, 2012 / 4:20 p.m.

Conservative

Randy Kamp Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge—Mission, BC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Dr. MacIsaac, for being here. We appreciate your testimony.

I understand you're a member of the Society of Canadian Limnologists, and in a moment I'm going to ask you to tell us what that is. I assume from the Greek root that it has something to do with lakes or inland waters. I read that you won an award fairly recently.

When we started this study, I think our primary focus was on Asian carp and the potential for serious negative effects if it made its way from the Mississippi basin into the Great Lakes, and then as you say, perhaps into lakes beyond that. As you are a limnologist, I want to ask you your view about the threat there in particular. I think I read that some have hypothesized that the carp would have a difficult time in the Great Lakes because there are not enough food sources. I wonder what your opinion is.

4:25 p.m.

Prof. Hugh MacIsaac

Thank you very much.

I applaud your knowledge of Greek. “Limnos” is the Greek root for “standing water”, so limnology is the study of standing waters.

The award is named after a gentleman named Frank Rigler, who was a prominent limnologist first at the University of Toronto and then at McGill University. He died prematurely. I was an undergraduate student and got to hear a speech by him at my own undergraduate school when I was a fourth-year student. It's one of the few talks I ever have been able to recall hearing, and it was 30-something years ago. The reason I remember it is that he talked about Loch Ness monsters. His whole presentation was on why Loch Ness monsters couldn't possibly exist—there simply wasn't enough food in Loch Ness to feed monsters.

Now, the Asian carp clearly are a concern. What I can tell you is that we're not certain what the effects would be on the Great Lakes, so the best thing to do is apply the precautionary principle and keep them out.

There are two possible factors I've seen that might limit the success of the species in the Great Lakes. We think, based upon environmental modelling of where they currently occur globally, that similar types of habitats exist in the Great Lakes, so there's nothing such as temperature to keep them from doing well in the Great Lakes.

What could keep them from doing well is either the food limitation that you described—many of the areas of the Great Lakes simply do not have high enough productivity levels of zooplankton and phytoplankton to support large populations of Asian carp—or, it has been suggested, that the fish requires extremely long rivers in order to breed successfully. They discharge eggs, and the eggs float downstream as they're developing.

There are rivers on the Great Lakes that are sufficiently long, but overall I'm skeptical that these fish are going to eat the Great Lakes the way that people have suggested they are. The literature I have read suggests that this is unlikely to happen, unless they can feed on foods that we're not currently aware of. If they can feed on very small particles, then they may be able to obtain enough energy to do very well in the Great Lakes.

But certainly areas such as the Detroit River, western Lake Erie, and Lake St. Clair are habitats that would be prime for them—particularly western Lake Erie, because the amount of food available there is much higher than, say, in large parts of Lake Ontario or Lake Huron.

4:25 p.m.

Conservative

Randy Kamp Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge—Mission, BC

Well, I think that's good news.

Some have suggested that other invasive species, such as the zebra mussel and the quagga mussel, have changed the trophic state of the lakes and that the water is much clearer than it used to be. Could that in some ironic kind of way make them less hospitable for Asian carp as well?

4:25 p.m.

Prof. Hugh MacIsaac

That's an excellent point. Yes, it could. We find that these zebra and quagga mussels are what we call “ecosystem engineers”. They change physical aspects of the habitat, chemical aspects of the habitat, and the biology of the systems. They have literally transformed the way the Great Lakes operate.

Initially, I thought that those effects would be limited primarily to the shallower basins, such as Lake St. Clair and western Lake Erie. But now what we're seeing is that systems such as Lake Huron and Lake Michigan have been completely transformed by quagga mussels as they spread to those systems.

One of the results of this is actually a positive one, in many cases. For example, if you own a cottage on a lake, your cottage value is partially determined by how clear the water is. The clearer the water, the higher the value of your cottage. Ironically, if you had zebra mussels there, they might clarify the water and the value initially might go up.

The reason the water is being cleared is that the animals are filtering both zooplankton and phytoplankton, and silt and clay. Using their gills, they either consume that stuff, or they spit it out and it sits on the bottom of the lake. The net result is that you remove a lot of particles that used to live up in the water. They are now being deposited on the bottom of the lake. If it's down there, then it's not available for the carp species, which are filtering the water as they swim through it.

So ironically, you're correct that it is possible that the effects of zebra and quagga mussels could make it more difficult for these fish to do well in the Great Lakes.

4:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Rodney Weston

Thank you very much.

Ms. Doré Lefebvre.

4:30 p.m.

NDP

Rosane Doré Lefebvre Alfred-Pellan, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Mr. MacIsaac, your presentation was really very interesting. According to what you say, invasive species are a serious problem that is everywhere, on boats as well as in these channels that have been created. However, I really did not expect to hear that they are also to be found on fishing lines. I don't know how people could wash their fishing lines every time using salt. Be that as it may, that's good to know.

If we installed laboratories like the ones you mentioned and if Transport Canada did sampling on the eastern and western seaboards in the spring and in the fall, in salt water and fresh waters, for instance in the port of Quebec or in Canada's north, would that be a viable approach? Would the money the department gives you allow you to implement such a program?

Can you give me a rapid estimate of the amount you would need for something like that to work?

4:30 p.m.

Prof. Hugh MacIsaac

I'm not sure if Transport would be the appropriate group.

DFO has hired a number of research scientists over the past decade explicitly to work on invasive species issues. Now I wouldn't say that it's their sole responsibility to go out and count samples like this, but very clearly if we had a national program, they could oversee the counting. Often what they're going to do is send it out to a company to do the actual counting and identification, but you would then have these scientists interpret that data to see whether or not there are new problems over time.

I would love to see that happen. I'd made a call for it years ago. I think it should be done. Invasive species are one of the odd issues that the more trade you have, the greater your exposure is to invaders. All of us want to see our economy grow, and because of that, our exposure to these invaders—primarily through shipping but also through airplanes—is going to increase in the future.

I think it would be smart to set up programs where you can try to.... What we do is we study the vectors of the so-called pathways that transmit those species. You're not going to be able to control all of those pathways, but if you focus on the major ones such as ballast water in ships, then you can try to figure out how you can mess up that vector so that it can't transmit the species, without interfering with the trade.

4:30 p.m.

NDP

Rosane Doré Lefebvre Alfred-Pellan, QC

Do you really think that that control will change things in any substantial way?

You said that you had noted a gradual decrease, but is there any way of increasing the chances of survival of the habitat and indigenous fish species rather than seeing them disappear? Do we have any way of turning back the clock a bit?

4:30 p.m.

Prof. Hugh MacIsaac

We can't go back to the way things were, but there's a thing in toxicology called the dose-response relationship. Essentially, if I expose an organism to a certain dose of chemical, what's the response going to be with the chemical? We can do the same thing in invasion biology. If I have 10 propagules coming in on a ship, I don't know what the exact risk is of 10 propagules, but I do know that it's a lot lower than if there were a thousand or a million propagules. It might be a linear relationship that the more you add to a system, the more we inoculate the system, the greater the risk that some of those species are going to survive.

What we want to do is drive the number of organisms in these vectors, in this case in ballast water, down so low that even though the species may be introduced to Canada, they're not introduced at a sufficient abundance that the species can survive and establish here.

My colleague a couple of weeks ago, Ladd Johnson referred to a thing called the Allee effect. Essentially what happens there is that if the organism abundance that gets introduced is small enough, they can't find mates. And if you can't find mates, then you may survive but you're never going to reproduce and therefore.... We have an organism, I'll give you an example, called the Chinese mitten crab. The Chinese mitten crab has these big claws that look like mittens. It lives primarily in rivers but during the adult stage, lives out in the sea; sorry, they reproduce in the sea and they live in the rivers. We have caught these crabs in Lake Erie on a number of occasions, great big mature crabs, very large individuals. They don't pose an invasion risk to the Great Lakes because they can't reproduce in fresh water. They must go out to the sea to reproduce, so they pose no invasion risk.

What we want to do with all of our vectors, or certainly with the major vectors, is we want to emasculate them, if you will. We want to reduce the number of individuals that they're carrying to the point where they're no longer risky.

I may be wrong, but I think we're at that stage with ballast water. I haven't talked about hull fouling, but I think it's a huge issue for Canada.

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Rodney Weston

Thank you very much.

Mr. Leef.

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

Ryan Leef Yukon, YT

Thank you very much.

Yes, it's been great. Your presentation was quite succinct as well. It was easy to follow, which is great for sometimes highly technical presentations. You talked about the lessons learned approach and now I'm just going to shift it, because we're always talking about what we can do, but presumably, when we move to investing in things, sometimes it's often as important to know what doesn't work. Can you give us some feedback on maybe some things that are commonly tried. I think the temptation every once in a while is to do something instead of nothing, but sometimes something is just completely ineffective.

Are there things going on where we should just not go down that road because we know it's nothing more than a waste of money or completely ineffective?

4:35 p.m.

Prof. Hugh MacIsaac

Excellent question. There are case studies we can look at. I can cite two where I know they've been very successful. There's an animal called the black-striped mussel, it's like a zebra mussel; it attaches to things. They found it in a port in Australia. The cordoned off the port and they blasted it with chemicals to kill it. In another case, an algae called the killer algae, which came from the Mediterranean Sea, was found down in San Diego. It lives on the bottom of the sea and grows up. Scuba divers found patches of this stuff and so they were able to put tarps over top of it and then they threw chlorine pucks underneath the tarps and they managed to kill it.

The important thing there is that there are two success stories and both of them have involved aquatic ecosystems, but we're talking essentially about a two-dimensional environment. It's not open water. These are things that are living on the bottom.

So if we have organisms that are living in the water, like spiny water fleas, we're not likely going to be successful in trying to eradicate them if they get in. If that happens, then you've just lost the game. If zebra mussels get into your lake, you've lost the game. It's highly unlikely you're ever going to get permission to go in and chlorinate or put sufficient potassium in to kill all the animals in the lake; people aren't going to tolerate that.

So what we're trying to determine is whether there are cases where success can be predicted or failure can be predicted. What I can tell you is that I know of a couple of cases where... For example, there is this macrophyte I mentioned in my opening comments, which is in the Trent-Severn waterway, and they've spent at least two years now trying to eradicate the plant. The problem is that if you miss only a couple of seeds, then you think you got everything and you come back the next year and the thing's growing again. In some cases you may have to return repeatedly before you're actually going to be able to claim victory on that.

We're only at the stage now where we're assembling cases from throughout the world where people have either been successful or unsuccessful, and we're trying to relate it to the size of the habitat, the type of intervention, and ask, “Were they trying to eradicate the species?”—such as with the black-striped mussel that I mentioned—or “Were they trying to control the spread?”

In Ontario we had the emerald ash borer. How many people know what an emerald ash borer is? It's a beetle. It arrived in wood packing materials on a ship, literally, into almost my backyard. This thing just took off and it's spreading through. I think it's into Quebec now and it's over in Wisconsin. It's like a big bomb has gone off with this thing.

Initially, they tried to reduce its spread by cutting a 10 kilometre swath from Lake St. Clair down to Lake Erie where they said we can prevent the dispersal of the beetle if we remove all the ash trees it lives in. They went onto both public and private property and cut all the ash trees out, and they found it was unsuccessful because someone had already moved the beetles east of where they were cutting. So there are case studies like that where you have to be very certain that someone hasn't already taken them beyond what you're trying to do.

A third strategy is suppression, and the most common example of that.... And you may hear about it from the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, whose mandate is largely to reduce the problems caused by sea lamprey in the Great Lakes. So they have a wide array of techniques that they're using to try to kill the larvae of the fish before they can go in and cause problems in the Great Lakes. That's a successful example of a suppression, but you notice that they're not exterminating the fish from the Great Lakes. That doesn't appear to be possible.

We are looking at that, though. I think it's an important thing so you can then tell the government, look, before you try to remove this fish from a stream, you should be aware that 15 previous studies have tried this and only one of them worked.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Ryan Leef Yukon, YT

Good point. Thank you.

You mentioned that Australia and New Zealand have the risk-assessment tools to determine the threat of ships' hulls before they arrive. You recommend we review policies and develop something similar for Canada. Do you have a couple of examples in mind?

4:40 p.m.

Prof. Hugh MacIsaac

I have one. I read in the newspaper this morning that two people have been charged with bringing Tamil refugees to Canada a couple of years ago onboard two vessels. I wrote the Minister of Public Safety at the time. I think I should have written the Minister of Transport. We need to make sure that these vessels never enter Canadian waters.

In our previous network, we did a risk assessment of vessels coming into Canada, and we found that high fouling of the vessels was associated with poor hull husbandry, which means that the ships had not been coated with anti-fouling paints for a long time. I suspect that the gentlemen who brought these vessels to Canada knew that they were going to be grabbed by the Canadian government, and they probably hadn't been treated with any anti-fouling paints for a long time.

They were coming from tropical waters, which is another risk factor. They probably had been sitting in ports in Sri Lanka before they came to Canada. These are risk factors. These things are like floating little islands of species, and we brought them into our coastal waters in British Columbia. I think it posed an enormous risk to the country.

I don't want to talk about the migrants. That's not my area. We should have offloaded the migrants well offshore, kept the ship offshore, and done something with it out there. We should not have allowed it into Canada.

As part of our study, we found that we never found hull fouling on vessels that had been coated in the previous 180 days. The Australian regulations stipulate that the ship falls into a high-risk category requiring at least some level of scrutiny when it comes in. They use a 90-day window. If you've been treated in the previous 90 days, they don't view you as a threat. If it's been more than 90 days, when you come into shore, someone's going to stand on the dock, and he's going to look for fouling organisms on the side of the ship. If he doesn't see any, the ship is deemed to be safe. If he finds fouling organisms, they would get SCUBA divers to go in and look for more. We don't have to reinvent the wheel. We can look at what these people have done and adapt it for Canada.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Rodney Weston

Thank you very much.

Mr. MacAulay.