York researchers hail budget plan on invasive species

York biology professors Norman Yan and Laurence Packer are applauding the federal government’s recent announcement of $85 million in new funds to develop a national strategy on invasive species.

“This major financial commitment shows that the study of invasive species is finally getting the attention it deserves at the highest levels,” said Yan. “We have known for years about how pollution, habitat alteration and resource harvesting affect ecosystems, and we have policies, systems and agencies to address these issues. It is only recently that the introduction of invasive species has been identified as the fourth major impact humans can have on the environment.”

spiny water fleaA significant number of invasive species are threatening our surface waters, forests and farms not to mention our health. Canadians might be surprised to hear that the financial impact of invasive species on our economy has been estimated as high as $37-billion a year.

Yan’s special focus, the spiny water flea (right) is only one of over 1,400 identified non-indigenous species that have established themselves in Canada’s lands and waters, often through ballast-transfer from ocean-going freighters since the St. Lawrence Seaway was built in 1959.

Countless numbers of these microscopic fleas have recently invaded the Great Lakes and are now spreading inland, where their proliferation has begun to cause biological problems in Ontario’s surface waters. Yan’s ground-breaking study of the water flea’s impact on Harp Lake, a tiny lake in central Ontario, (see story in Nov. 13, 2003 issue of YFile) is getting international acclaim in scientific circles and is one of many studies which have spurred the federal government to make its crucial promise to address invasive species in February’s budget.

“We’re not going to solve these problems with science alone,” said Yan, referring to York’s reputation for interdisciplinary research. “There are issues related to governance, the interplay of agencies, economics, international law, trade – all sorts of things – that must be considered as well if we are to protect our vulnerable ecosystems and habitats.”

asian longhorn beetleRight: Asian longhorn beetle

“York is taking a lead role in driving interdisciplinary research into this phenomenon,” says Packer, who organized a workshop entitled “Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Problems Caused by Invasive Species” in November, 2004, sponsored the York Centre for International and Security Studies. Presenters from several universities in Ontario and Manitoba, several branches of the federal government and a non-governmental organization dealt with the scientific, economic, trade, legal, educational, philosophical and political aspects of invasive species issues.

Each speaker emphasized the need for discussions across disciplines and between academics and other sectors of Canadian society in designing a cohesive and successful approach to the problems caused by invasive species. There was general agreement that such a fusion of interests was the only way in which effective solutions could be generated.

One theme that ran through the day’s proceedings was the lack of sufficient personnel to identify the species that might arrive on Canadian soil or in our waters. There are an estimated 55,000 species of insect native to Canada, with tens of millions of species that could potentially invade from elsewhere and yet only a handful of experts capable of actually recognizing newly invaded species as being something different. Workshop participants agreed that identifying even a tiny proportion of all of these species is an enormous task and monitoring all of Canada’s territory to document their arrival is nearly impossible. Science outreach and education programs aimed at the public have provided valuable information in the past in other contexts and, Hague Vaughan of Environment Canada’s Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network (EMAN) said, could be even more effective in the monitoring of habitat change and species introductions.

The effort could involve a combination of university-based academics with interests in identification of organisms, ecology, education, media and communications collaborating with EMAN to design and implement programs whereby large numbers of Canadians could help in identifying and monitoring invasive species.

There was a consensus that York should be the place to develop these initiatives because of its focus on interdisciplinary work and an already significant concentration of expertise among faculty members who are well connected to other sectors of society, such as government, non-governmental organizations, businesses and stakeholders in the ecology and economic spheres impacted by invasive species

Organizers hope to stage an international conference in 2006 that would attract experts from countries which already have detailed policies, legal frameworks and monitoring networks in place – such as New Zealand and Australia – to develop solutions to invasive species within Canada.

Conference participants also identified the need to set up an interdisciplinary research unit dedicated to investigating all of the necessary components for the development and implementation of a successful invasive species strategy for Canada. The facility would involve faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from across all disciplines and would engage external stakeholders from government, NGOs and industry as well as community groups.

“We believe that this two-step process – an international conference and a Centre of Excellence devoted to interdisciplinary invasive species research and knowledge transfer – is essential for the development of solutions to the problems,” said Packer.

A copy of the conference report, Interdiciplinary Approaches to the Problems Caused by Invasive Species, with extended summaries from the talks, along with the schedule of presentations and a list of attendees, is available as a PDF file (1MB).