Data gaps a threat to environment: auditor general

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Data gaps in Canada’s water monitoring regimes could be bad for Northern waterways if left unchecked, according to a commissioner in the Office of the Auditor General.

Julie Gelfand: Northern waters may be at risk from invasive species. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Auditor General of Canada
Julie Gelfand: Northern waters may be at risk from invasive species. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Auditor General of Canada

Four reports were released last week by Julie Gelfand, the outgoing commissioner of the environment and sustainable development. These reports were on aquatic invasive species, the protection of fish from mining wastewater, and two looking at subsidies for oil and gas.

The Northern region for aquatic invasive species is always a concern … because Canada is really not ready,” says Gelfand.

There are not a lot of resources being put to make sure that the north doesn’t get impacted by aquatic invasives, either freshwater or marine ones. That one should concern everybody because the whole country, really, is at risk.”

Possible invasive species could be Asian carp, which are sometimes imported illegally for ornamental purposes and are wreaking havoc on waterways that lead to the southern Great Lakes.

They can eat up to 40 per cent of their body weight per day, leaving little food for native species.

Somebody (could) bring their recreational boat up from southern Canada with some zebra mussels that they can’t see and the boat is put into Great Slave Lake or something. Who knows, right?” she said.

I don’t know if the water temperature there is such that this particular species would live, but these species aren’t always visible.”

Gelfand said her office found that Fisheries and Oceans Canada hadn’t fully established where these invasive species are across the country or which species pose the greatest threat to what areas.

They were spending over 70 per cent of the budget related to aquatic invasive species on making sure that Asian carp didn’t enter the Great Lakes and dealing with sea lamprey,” said Gelfand.

So that left 30 per cent of the budget to deal with all the other potential aquatic invasive species. And right now there’s 174 of them on the regulation list,” she said, which doesn’t include invasive aquatic plants.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans did not respond, by press time, to a request for information on what invasive species—if any—have been identified in Northern waters and are being monitored.

Mining effluent

Another report directly affecting the NWT is on the protection of fish from mining effluent.

Gelfand’s report stated the feds are generally doing a good job monitoring waters for mining waste and mines are generally compliant with the regulations, sending weekly data and samples to laboratories. Federal inspectors visit in person less frequently.

In the NWT, and in the North, we found that that mines are inspected almost on average about once every 18 months,” she said. “And that was the average across the country.”

Weaker points in the data were in Ontario and in the inspections of non-metal mines.

What concerned us was non-metal mines and this includes coal, pot ash, oil sands, that kind of stuff,” she said. “Those mines were being inspected at a much lower frequencies.”

This is despite regulations that no effluent from these particular operations enter Canadian waters.

Their limit is basically zero and their inspection regime is much lower and Environment Canada couldn’t make me comfortable that there was no risk there.”

These are Gelfand’s last reports in her term as commissioner. In an outgoing statement, she also said the country is not doing enough to either lower greenhouse gas emissions or prepare for climate change and mitigate its impact.

This must change,” she wrote.

Leaving her role, Gelfand said that despite this, she remains hopeful about the future.

You always have to. We’re facing a very large problem. All of humanity is facing this issue of a climate that’s changing. We must all work to reduce our emissions and we must all work to get ready to adapt to the changes.”