DFO failing in its mandate to control invasive species, auditors find

Auditors found slow response times and a haphazard approach to problems. The department's main program on invasive species also has no Arctic mandate.

The department's main program on invasive species also has no Arctic mandate

A cluster of zebra mussels, a kind of invasive aquatic species, taken from Lake Michigan on May 3, 2007. Some are concerned little is being done to monitor for invasive species in Arctic water ways (The Canadian Press)

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada's main program to handle invasive species does not have a mandate in the Arctic, a recent audit noted — and one advocate says that could leave vulnerable Arctic ecosystems at risk.

The Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development to the Parliament of Canada released its audit of how Fisheries and Oceans Canada handles invasive aquatic species last week, alongside an assessment critical of the federal government's failure to adequately act on climate change.

Invasive aquatic species include fish, plants and other organisms not native to an ecosystem. Those species can be destructive for native species in that they compete for food and can carry disease.

The invasive species audit found the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Canada Border Services Agency have not taken the steps they said they would to prevent invasive aquatic species from entering Canada's waters.

"Fisheries and Oceans Canada had not determined which species and pathways posed the greatest threats to Canada's environment and economy and to human health and activities, and it had not determined which species were the most important to regulate," the audit said.

The audit found shortcomings in training and equipping fishery officers, and an unclear breakdown of responsibilities between the DFO and territorial and provincial governments. It also found that when threats did become known, the DFO was "slow" to respond.

Round gobies are a kind of invasive species threatening the Great Lakes ecosystem. (The Canadian Press)

Little monitoring of situation in the North

The audit focused on DFO actions in southern waters, where there are already several known invasions — such as zebra mussels and green crab — that need to be dealt with.

But the report's principal, Kimberley Leach, also told CBC that "we did find that there wasn't a lot of activity in the North."

"They aren't doing the job in the rest of the regions," said Leach, who led the invasive species audit, adding that the department's resources are stretched.

"It's not surprising to us, I guess, that there's little going on in the Arctic right now because there's actually not a lot going on in many other parts of Canada as well."

Leach said her team heard from DFO officials that the main program to handle invasive species did not have a mandate in Canada's North because there have yet to be any significant invasions through Arctic waters.

However, she said, "everybody also recognizes that the risk of damage from any species invasion in the North is very high due to the vulnerability of ecosystems there ... one official told us that they're very concerned about the risk."

Arctic at risk?

That's a risk that Dan Kraus, with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, believes is growing. He says the Arctic is seeing increased shipping due to climate change. Warmer waters can also make Arctic seas friendlier to new species.

"As those waters warm and ports are open more often we know that we're going to see more shipping, both commercial shipping but also tourism as well," he said. "And those are all potential sources of bringing invasive species into some of those ... waters."

Dan Kraus, a biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, says that without a series of risk assessments, it could be hard for DFO to know what invasive species to focus on. (Dan Kraus)

Leach noted that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has community monitoring programs for invasive marine species in the Arctic, funded through the department's science programming, and that there "would be the possibility of things expanding there in the future" if a particular species posed a threat.

The auditors said the main problem is that without a consistent system, it's hard to know if the DFO is focusing on the right threats. 

In a statement released on April 2, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna and Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Jonathan Wilkinson responded to the audit.

"We are committed to preventing the introduction of aquatic invasive species into Canadian waters."

The statement also noted that in 2017 the government of Canada allocated $43.8 million over five years to tackle the issue. The government also spends millions of dollars a year to control sea lamprey in the Great Lakes and prevent the influx of Asian carp. 

Nestled within the audit, the department also offered responses to the recommendations. The responses noted the DFO received funding increases in 2017 and plans to develop a more systematic approach and a national response strategy.

But a response in the audit also noted that "funding was significantly less than Fisheries and Oceans Canada's identified needs" and added the department would have to make risk-based decisions on where to focus.

The department said a spokesperson was unavailable for an interview on Wednesday.


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