How a deadly fungus prompted permanent restrictions on importing salamanders into Canada

Proponents of conserving a small, insect-eating amphibian say regulations that have now been permanently adopted by Canada can help stop the spread of a deadly infection.

Rules now in place indefinitely aim to protect native species from 'devastation'

The red-backed salamander is native to northwestern Ontario. It is one of 22 species of salamander in Canada. (Submitted by Matt Ellerbeck)

Proponents of conserving a small, insect-eating amphibian say regulations that have now been permanently adopted by Canada can help stop the spread of a deadly infection.

New restrictions on importing all species in the Caudata order, including salamanders, newts and mudpuppies, went into effect indefinitely on May 12.

It follows a one-year period of restrictions that started in 2017. According to federal officials, the rules aim to protect native Canadian species from a harmful fungus called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bsal.

"This fungus is really bad for salamanders so that's ... what they're trying to do is to stop the fungus from getting into the country through the pet trade," said Clint Fulsom, a conservationist with the group Save the Salamanders.

It would cause devastation, unfortunately- Clint Fulsom , conservationist

"If that fungus were to get here, it would cause devastation, unfortunately."

The fungus has already had catastrophic effects on salamander populations in Europe, said Sabrina Kemp, the manager of regulatory development with Environment and Climate Change Canada's Canadian Wildlife Service. She added that the fungus likely spread there from eastern Asia through the pet trade.

"There have been populations, certain populations of certain species in Europe that have seen up to 95 per cent declines," she said.
Native salamanders are at risk of contracting an illness from a type of fungus, federal officials said. (Submitted by Matt Ellerbeck)

Salamanders can also be imported for research, Kemp added.

Canada is home to 22 species of native salamanders, some of which are designated species-at-risk, Kemp said, and while researchers are still figuring out how at risk to the fungus each type would be, "it's looking like almost every species is susceptible to it to a certain degree."

"What we anticipate is that if the fungus is introduced into Canada, we would see devastating effects similar to ... what we have seen in Europe," she said.  Kemp added that outbreaks of illness in salamanders due to the fungus were first noted in Europe in 2013; two years later, officials in North America began talking about a coordinated response to stop it spreading here.

Salamanders play an important ecological role, Kemp and Fulsom said, including eating disease-carrying insects like mosquitos and ticks. They're also a food source for other threatened animals, like some turtles and herons.

Permits required

Importing salamanders and their close relatives into the country now requires a permit, Kemp said, adding that applications will be categorized as either low or high risk, depending on a number of factors.

Those include things like the species being imported, where the animal is coming from and the type of specimen — whether it's a live salamander or preserved.

"So, for the higher-risk category of application, those ones would require a bit more information and applicants would have to be able to clearly demonstrate that the salamander specimen would not be released into Canadian ecosystems," Kemp said.

Still, she said she doesn't expect there will be too many requests for exemptions, adding that during the one-year period that started in 2017, regulators likely received less than a dozen permit applications.

"I think that folks are quite informed about this," she said. In addition, she said the pet industry has been cooperative.

With files from Gord Ellis