Canada’s biodiversity under attack, federal-provincial report finds

October 20, 2010

The most comprehensive report ever on the state of Canada’s biodiversity calls for action to ‘‘maintain functioning ecosystems” from B.C.‘s forests to the Prairies grasslands to the St. Lawrence River.

The report, Canadian biodiversity: ecosystem status and trends 2010, was quietly posted on the web Friday by the federal, provincial and territorial governments for the Tenth Meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP-10) which began Monday in Japan.

Environment Canada, which routinely issues media releases about Minister Jim Prentice’s activities and announcements, did not alert the public to the report, which has been years in the making and is the most detailed assessment ever on the status of Canada’s landscape, wildlife and wild places.

Environment Canada media officer Mark Johnson says posting such reports on the web “is a normal process, which demonstrates that the Government of Canada is committed to transparency and keeping the public informed on important work being done on conservation.”

“A public announcement to highlight the availability of the report is expected within the next few days,” Johnson said by email late Monday afternoon.

The 102-page report highlights the need for action to ‘‘maintain functioning ecosystems” in old forests, lakes and rivers, and agricultural areas.

In also points to huge swaths of Canada where “natural processes are compromised or increased stresses are reaching critical thresholds.” This list includes fisheries, like the once plentiful Atlantic cod, “that have not recovered despite the removal of fishing pressure; declines in the area and condition of grasslands, where grassland bird populations are dropping sharply; and fragmented forests that place forest-dwelling caribou at risk.”

It points to the changes underway in the North, saying, “the dramatic loss of sea ice in the Arctic has many current ecosystem impacts and is expected to trigger declines in ice-associated species such as polar bears.”

Nutrient loading is another big concern, and is “on the rise in over 20 per cent of the water bodies sampled, including some of the Great Lakes where, 20 years ago, regulations successfully reduced nutrient inputs. This time, causes are more complex and solutions will likely be more difficult.”

It says lakes affected by acid rain have been slow to recover, even though acidifying air emissions have been reduced. And “invasive non-native species have reached critical levels in the Great Lakes and elsewhere.”

The report is billed as the first assessment of Canada’s biodiversity from an ecosystem perspective. It was prepared for the federal, provincial and territorial governments for the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity and is based on technical reports prepared by more than 500 experts across the country.

The news is not all bad. “Over half of Canada’s landscape remains intact and relatively free from human infrastructure,” says the executive summary.

“Although much is in the more remote North, this also includes large tracts of boreal forest and coastal temperate rainforest. Canada maintains commercial and recreational freshwater and marine fisheries of significant economic and cultural importance.”

It also notes that some marine mammal populations are recovering from past overharvesting and that contaminants, such as DDT and PCBs, are declining in wildlife.

But far more of the arrows in the report point to downward trends and ecosystems that are of “concern” or are “impaired.”

Among the 22 key findings of the biodiversity report:

– Human impact: Humans now dominate most ecosystems on Earth. In Canada, with more wilderness than most countries, this dominance is not always obvious — but even in remote areas, human influence is increasingly apparent.

– Invasive species: Non-native species are destroying valuable wetland and grassland habitat, invading marine intertidal areas, and dominate the Great Lakes. Economic and ecological losses caused have been estimated at $5.7 billion annually in the Great Lakes alone. Wildlife diseases caused by non-native pathogens, such as West Nile virus, have killed thousands of birds and potentially threaten many different wildlife species.

– Species at risk: Twenty per cent of frogs, toads and salamanders are considered at risk of extinction in Canada. Declines of several amphibian populations since the mid-1990s have been documented in the Great Lakes Basin and the St. Lawrence River corridor.

– In Canada 18 per cent of freshwater fish are listed as endangered or threatened. The number of endangered or threatened fish species has been increasing since the 1980s. The causes of declines vary across the country and include invasive non-native species; habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation; overharvesting; pollution; and climate change.

– Since the 1970s, birds of grassland and other open habitats lost over 40 per cent of their populations. Half of the 35 shorebird species assessed in 2000 showed decline. Trends for seabirds are mixed, but the number of populations in decline has increased since the 1980s. Waterfowl are generally healthy, although some species are in decline.

– Most northern caribou herds are declining, “some precipitously.” Causes are not well understood and might include natural population cycles, climate change, increased impacts from human activity, changes in predation, and over-harvesting. Forest-dwelling woodland caribou are considered threatened in the boreal forest, with many herds declining.

– Acid rain: Emissions linked with acid rain and snow have declined since 1980, but improvements in lake acidity have been slow to follow. Parts of the Boreal Shield have acid deposition levels beyond the ability of the ecosystem to cope. The Atlantic-Maritime region has some of the most acidic waters and heavily affected fish habitat in North America. Although acidification is often considered an eastern issue, it is an increasing concern in northwest Saskatchewan where many lakes downwind of oil and gas emissions are sensitive to acid deposition.

– Climate change: Canada’s climate has changed significantly since the 1950s. Temperatures have increased across the country, especially in winter and spring. Spring now arrives earlier, meaning snow melts earlier and growing seasons are longer. Precipitation has generally increased, especially in the North. The average annual temperature has increased by 1.4° C. Changes are likely to increase and become more widespread with continued warming. These include rising sea levels, higher sea water temperatures, and increases in wildfires.

– Contaminants: Levels of legacy contaminants — banned or restricted chemicals, such as PCBs — have declined but new threats such flame retardants (PBDEs) have emerged. PBDE levels have increased since the 1980s in fish, birds, whales and polar bears.

– Nutrient loading and algae: In recent years, algal blooms have been reported in lakes, reservoirs, ponds, rivers, swamps and estuaries across the southern half of the country. Although harmful marine algal blooms occur naturally, they appear to be increasing in the oceans off Canada’s coasts.

– Agricultural land less hospitable: The potential capacity of agricultural landscapes to support wildlife in Canada has declined over the past 20 years, largely due to the intensification of agriculture and the loss of natural and semi-natural land cover. Agricultural landscapes cover seven per cent of Canada’s land area and provide important habitat for over 550 species of terrestrial vertebrates, including about half of the species assessed as at risk nationally.

The full report is available at:

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