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

3:35 p.m.


The Chair Rodney Weston

I call this meeting to order.

I'd like to thank Professor MacIsaac for joining us here today.

Professor MacIsaac, we're studying invasive species. I'm sure you're well aware of the work that we have been doing on this particular study.

I assume the clerk has advised you that we generally allow around 10 minutes for opening presentations from our guests; then we go right into questions. If I cut you off, I apologize in advance. Our members are limited by the amount of time for questions and answers. It's in the interest of fairness to try to keep our questions and answers as close to that timeframe as possible.

Having said that, Professor MacIsaac, whenever you are ready, the floor is yours.

May 16th, 2012 / 3:35 p.m.

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

Thank you very much.

Good afternoon. My name is Hugh MacIsaac. I'm a professor at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor. I'm also the director of the Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network. I've been working on invasive species for 22 years.

I'd be happy to speak to any of the questions you might have; however, I'd like to begin by telling you about our network, and our successes and challenges with respect to aquatic invasive species in the Great Lakes.

CAISN, the Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network, is a consortium of 30 professors at 12 universities, six DFO labs, and provincial labs in Ontario and B.C. We are based in eight provinces. We currently receive about $5 million in total funding from NSERC, $1 million from DFO, and $750,000 from Transport Canada.

We work on all four coasts in Canada. We have four research themes, including early detection, rapid response, invasive species as part of a multiple stressor of aquatic ecosystems, and reducing uncertainty in the management of alien species.

CAISN is the only group of its kind in the world that combines academic involvement with government, industry, and NGOs. I can tell you that my colleagues in other countries around the world who are familiar with CAISN are very impressed with the work we've been doing.

I'm presently involved in an early detection project in the Great Lakes and in other coastal areas across the country that uses a new genetic technique called pyrosequencing to assess the presence of alien and native species in ports using environmental DNA. The technique is far more sensitive to species present at very low abundances than traditional sampling with nets and microscopes, and thus it is great for detection of both alien species and endangered species.

We have completed an initial screening of the port of Hamilton and have detected more than six times as many species of the two most common groups of organisms as all of the previous studies reported in the literature for that port. We're also processing samples currently from Montreal, Nanticoke, and Thunder Bay, all ports that we view as high-risk in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River area.

In terms of rapid response, we're conducting a global review of programs aimed at elimination, control of the spread, or population suppression to see what works and what doesn't. We hope we can use this “lessons learned” approach to inform programs across the country.

We are presently conducting trials with Fednav, which is a Montreal-based shipping company—they're the largest carrier of materials coming into the Great Lakes—to assess whether combining open-ocean ballast water exchange with chlorination provides either additive or synergistic benefits over either one of those two procedures by itself. We just completed our first trial on a ship running from Quebec down to Brazil, and the results so far look very promising.

We published a paper last year with our colleagues from DFO and Transport that looked at whether current ballast water regulations are effective at protecting the Great Lakes. As my colleague Dr. Tony Ricciardi explained to you a couple of weeks ago, all of the evidence we have available presently indicates or is consistent with a marked reduction in risk since ballast water regulations were implemented by Transport Canada in 2006.

We have a variety of lines of evidence for this. I'll run through some of them.

First, every ballast tank on every ship entering the seaway gets inspected by either U.S. or Canadian authorities to ensure that water in the ballast tanks is saline and thus of low risk.

Secondly, the abundance and diversity of risky species in the tanks—and we define risky as those that live in fresh water environments or brackish water environments—is now lower than before regulations came into effect.

Third, we did a retrospective test using simulated ocean water to see whether many of our recent invaders could have invaded had saltwater regulations been in place decades ago. We found that all of the species, including notorious ones such as zebra mussels and round gobies, likely could not have invaded if we had required ships to flush salt water into their tanks decades ago.

Fourth, we have not had a ballast-mediated invasion reported in the Great Lakes since 2006, which is the longest interval since the modern seaway opened.

Our studies have focused on invertebrate animals, and while it can be dangerous to assume that all species respond like them, all of the data we possess suggests that ballast water exchange, or flushing, appears to be working. If we're correct, then we expect the importance of this vector is going to be much reduced going forward.

What are the challenges? I'll review three that I think are very important. First, laker ships remain unregulated, and they commonly carry ballast water from freshwater ports on the St. Lawrence River for discharge in the Great Lakes. They could carry with them native species or invaders from the St. Lawrence River that are not yet present in the Great Lakes. Our studies are limited in terms of the number of ships and the amount of ballast water that we've sampled, but we think that ships from Quebec City might pose the greatest risk of introducing new species via ballast water to the Great Lakes.

Secondly, we think that the pet, aquarium, and live garden or pond trade represents a clear and largely unregulated threat to aquatic ecosystems across Canada. We are now studying two aquatic plants, water hyacinth and water lettuce, in Lake St. Clair. The plants can clog tributaries of the Great Lakes during summer, and are likely being reintroduced annually by people who purchase them in local stores. I found one vendor in the 416 area code—the Toronto area—that advertised nine different macrophyte or pond plant species for sale, all of which are invasive in Canada or some other part of the world. One species sold by this vendor is called water soldier, and water soldier is currently subject to an expensive multi-year eradication effort by the Ontario government in the Trent-Severn waterway.

Clearly, on the one hand we have vendors that are selling some of these plants without regulation. On the other hand, we have governments that are spending a lot of money to try to get rid of them. It doesn't make sense.

I should go back for one moment, regarding the pond and aquarium trade. A colleague of mine, Dr. Matthias Herborg, who runs the B.C. program on aquatic invasive species, notified me that they took video yesterday in Richmond, B.C., outside of Vancouver, of a snakehead in a lake there. So this is a problem across the country; it's not simply a Great Lakes problem. There are a number of snakehead fish species, but these are species we clearly want to keep out of Canada.

Third, Canada desperately needs a hull fouling policy. Hull fouling is often a more important vector for the introduction of alien species than ballast water in marine ecosystems. This vector is believed responsible for a small number of introductions into the Great Lakes, primarily algal species. Countries like Australia and New Zealand have developed risk assessment tools to determine the threat of ship hulls before the vessels actually arrive in their coastal waters. I think that we need to review their policies and develop ones that are specific to Canada based upon these experiences around the world.

Finally, compared to 10 short years ago, Canada's federal departments—DFO and Transport—have come a long way to identify and reduce the threat of alien invasive species. Twelve years ago when the Auditor General was going to come out with her first report on invaders, I was asked to come to Ottawa and speak to the question of whether or not we were doing enough at that time. At that time I was highly critical of the Canadian federal government because we were doing virtually nothing to stop these species from coming into our country.

If you wish, I can describe some of the programs you're probably familiar with that both Transport Canada and DFO have brought into place since that time to try to address this issue.

Transport Canada has been a very responsive partner, providing essential financial support, and the agency has come to implement recommendations that CAISN makes. Our work is not done. We need to continue our focus on trying to eliminate the pathways that allow these species to get into Canada, and as a backup, we need good, rapid response and early detection protocols for when prevention fails.

With that, I'd be happy to take any questions that you might have.

3:45 p.m.


The Chair Rodney Weston

Thank you very much, Professor MacIsaac.

We'll start off with Mr. Allen.

3:45 p.m.


Mike Allen Tobique—Mactaquac, NB

Thank you very much, Chair.

Professor, thank you very much for being here with us today.

In your brief, one of the sentences said, “We have completed an initial screening of the port of Hamilton and have detected more than six times as many species of the two most common groups of organisms” than in previous records in the literature...”, can you just explain to me what “six times as many...of the two most common groups” means? What is your concern with that?

3:45 p.m.

Prof. Hugh MacIsaac

This is one of the problems that we have in sampling organisms, particularly underwater organisms and if they're microscopic. We go out and we collect samples with nets. We bring them back to our lab and we analyze them under a microscope. It's very painstaking work. Typically, what a plankton ecologist would do is sample from that mixture and count and identify the first 300 or so organisms that you encounter in the sample.

The problem with that approach, and it's one that people have been using for hundreds of years, is that if organisms are present at abundances lower than one in 300, then the likelihood that you are going to pick them up in your microscope count is very low. In reality, there are probably many organisms that are found in nature that are found at one in a million or one in 10 million.

So there's an entire array of species that occur in aquatic ecosystems around the world that we rarely detect because their presence is so low. But if we use environmental DNA, you can track either the species itself or you can track the DNA that it's excreting into the water, and every species will leave a telltale signature.

So we're using a gene that is different for every single species, and instead of trying to identify the species the way we historically would do, we instead analyze the DNA and then we cross-reference the DNA to online databases. From that we can determine how many species there are.

In many cases, I can't give you the species' name, but I could tell you, in the example I just quoted from, that the two most common groups that you would find in an aquatic ecosystem are called copepods and cladocerans. Particularly for copepods, the taxonomy of that group is very difficult. It's hard to identify organisms. Consequently, frequently when people do an assessment of a plankton assemblage, say, from the port of Hamilton, they might count 15 species. When we do DNA work, instead we may get 60 species. So that's where the difference comes from.

3:45 p.m.


Mike Allen Tobique—Mactaquac, NB

Do you see this type of method that you're using now as being complementary to some of the existing sampling methods we're using, or replacing them at some point in time?

3:45 p.m.

Prof. Hugh MacIsaac

It's a good question. In our CAISN network in this particular project, we actually are doing three complementary studies at the same time.

Number one, we're doing this pyrosequencing.

Number two, we're collecting and we're splitting that sample. For a species for which we cannot get an identity—we know what the gene sequence is and we know it's a species, but we don't know what it is—we have another colleague at the University of Guelph who's processing those DNA sequences so that we can put a name to the species.

Number three, we have a third sample that's split off of the main sample and we do classical taxonomy work with that.

So we do all three.

3:45 p.m.


Mike Allen Tobique—Mactaquac, NB

That answered my other question of whether the stuff you're doing is because of the complementary nature of the network.

You did open the door a little bit to being a little disappointed up to a few years ago with respect to the reaction of the government. But can you talk a little bit about some of these key programs that you think have been introduced? I think it would be helpful for us as a committee to know what you think and what you believe are some of the key things that have been done in programs that have been set up by Transport, so that we make sure those are included in the report.

3:45 p.m.

Prof. Hugh MacIsaac

Transport doesn't have a research arm, unlike DFO, but what Transport has done is they have provided funding to research groups to try to get work done that they feel needs to be done.

We have been working with Transport funding for up to 10 years now. When Transport came up with their 2006 ballast water regulation, it was based on work that our group and a complementary group in Ann Arbor, Michigan, had been working on together for about 10 years. We determined that by looking at ships coming in with salt water, brackish water, or fresh water in their ballast tanks, we were able to determine the diversity and abundance of organisms.

We found that if the ships came in with salt water in the tanks, the diversity of threatening organisms—meaning those that could survive in the Great Lakes—was dramatically lower. We made note of that and informed both the shipping industry and Transport Canada. Transport Canada then took the initiative to require this open ocean flushing for all vessels coming into Canada. I think it's a great policy. I think it has been largely mimicked around the world now because it's effective.

I should also say that when we determined some of our genetic costs, this work that I just described to you, there were two downsides to it. As I mentioned, in many cases we can't put a name to the species that we find. We know they're bona fide species, but we don't know what they are yet. We can keep records of these and then in the future, as more and more species get genetically bar coded, we can go back and we can put names to those species.

The second problem is that it is very expensive to do this work. Each sample costs us about $10,000 to run. In most laboratories in Canada the professor may have $50,000 per year, so you're not going to get very far.

The nice thing about the network is that Transport gives us money and we can use that money to run samples. We're actually analyzing samples from 16 ports: four from the Great Lakes, four from the east coast, four from the west coast, and four from the Arctic. So we're doing complementary work across the country.

3:50 p.m.


Mike Allen Tobique—Mactaquac, NB


There are some draft amendments to the changes to the Fisheries Act that we're proposing right now, especially tailored to invasive species and the ability for some of those to be legislated, and to have some of the regulatory gaps possibly eliminated through identification, possession, import/export, release, and handling. Have you had a chance to review those? Maybe the flushing of these vessels should all be done with salt water, even the ones from Quebec City. Do you have any thoughts on potential regulations that we should be looking at going forward?

3:50 p.m.

Prof. Hugh MacIsaac

I'd hate to say that we ought to be regulating those ships because before we regulated the other vessels, we had to determine the risks they posed. That risk, for the Great Lakes at least, was determined largely by the evidence that we saw—that somewhere between 55% and 70% of the invaders that had come into the Great Lakes were from Eastern Europe. They had no opportunity to get here other than by ballast water, so we knew ballast water was the villain. In that case, knowing that it was a problem, I saw no alternative whatsoever. In fact, I strongly encouraged a policy to require this open-ocean flushing.

In the case of the lakers I've mentioned, we've done a little bit of work, funded by Transport Canada and using a DFO scientist, Dr. Sarah Bailey, and we've analyzed some ballast water samples coming into the Great Lakes. However, I don't think the evidence is sufficient for us to now say these ships clearly pose a risk, therefore they should be regulated. That requires more study.

3:50 p.m.


Mike Allen Tobique—Mactaquac, NB

Thank you.

I think my time's up.

3:50 p.m.


The Chair Rodney Weston

Thank you, Mr. Allen.

Ms. Doré Lefebvre.

3:50 p.m.


Rosane Doré Lefebvre Alfred-Pellan, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Mr. MacIsaac, for being here. It is really a pleasure to hear what you have to say. I have a lot of questions to ask you.

My colleague Mr. Allen already questioned you on these techniques involving environmental DNA that you use in your work. I would like to have some further details on this. According to what I understood, as compared to traditional techniques, these procedures allow you to detect invasive species in a much more effective way when you collect samples. Generally speaking, how does this work?

3:50 p.m.

Prof. Hugh MacIsaac

There are actually two ways to analyze environmental DNA. Some of you are familiar with this technique being used in the Chicago area to analyze for the presence of two Asian carp species. In that case, they selected a single gene, a sequence of DNA bases, that they knew was specific for each of the two carp species: the silver carp and the bighead carp. They went out and actually would collect just pure water and sample the water, and from that, extract DNA. They would collect the DNA that was filtered onto a mesh, and from the mesh, they could amplify it many times over and run it through a sequencer.

You can almost view it as sausages in a chain. What you need to do is determine the identity of each one of the sausages in that chain. Each sausage could be one of four different DNA bases. This is Biology 101. What we do, one by one, is cleave off the end one, determine what it is, and then we continue along the chain until we're finished. From that, you can determine what the sequence of DNA is.

They would be targeting two species and the DNA from those two species from raw water samples. That's a little bit different from what we are doing. In our case, we're actually collecting net samples, the way we've traditionally done, but instead of counting them under a microscope, we take all of the organisms.

It kind of looks like one of those toys you had as a kid—I forget what they're called—the little globes that you shake and see the snow flying around. That's what the plankton typically looks like, the snow in those little globes. So instead of trying to identify what every species is in that snowstorm, we take all the stuff and put it together, then we mash it all up. We don't try to identify the species. All we want to do is extract the DNA from those species. What you end up with is maybe 500 or 600 different species all combined together.