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Invasive Species in Canada: We need to toughen endangered species

By David McRobert*
May 2011

Published in: Eco-Bulletin: Newsletter of the National Environmental, Energy and

Resources Law Section, Canadian Bar Association
web site:,-Energy-and-Resources-Law

Alien species, also known as exotic or non-native species, are organisms such as birds,
mammals, fish, insects, plants, molluscs or micro-organisms that have been introduced into
habitats where they are not naturally found. Invasive alien species are those which out-compete
native species for food and habitat, causing native species to move to another area, weaken or
die. Fortunately, most alien species are poorly adapted to their new habitat and do not thrive.
Those that do pose a very significant threat to the economy, including forestry, fisheries and
In the past 200 years, more than 185 non-indigenous species have become established in the
Great Lakes basin. Some, such as the zebra mussel, Asian carp, sea lamprey and round goby, are
aggressive, extremely adaptable and have high reproduction rates enabling them to spread
quickly. Unchecked, some invaders outcompete native fish and wildlife, causing them to
become endangered.
After loss of habitat, invasive alien species (IASs) are the second most important cause of
decline of native species in Canada. For example, zebra mussels and round gobies have been
linked to outbreaks of botulism Type-E, which is a known cause of death for many native ducks.
Similarly, the American elm and American chestnut trees are no longer common in most
Canadian cities because of invasive alien fungal species originating in Europe and Asia. In the
1950s, lake trout and whitefish populations in the Great Lakes collapsed when the Welland
Canal was completed, allowing the sea lamprey access to the upper Great Lakes. In sum, the
impact of invasive species on ecosystems and species is often severe and seemingly irreversible.
A 2002 study prepared for the Canadian Wildlife Service estimated that approximately 24% of
the species at risk in Canada may be threatened with extinction by IASs.[1]
In December 1992, Canada was the first industrialized country to ratify the UN Convention on
Biological Diversity (CBD). Article 8(h) of the CBD requires all signatories to prevent the
introduction of, control or eradicate those alien species which threaten ecosystems, habitats or
species. In September 2004, Environment Canada released An Invasive Alien Species
Strategy for Canada.[2] Goals include reducing the number of species entering Canada, ensuring

that infestations are detected before they spread and that they are contained or eradicated in a
timely manner, and identifying appropriate containment, eradication and control measures.
Policy partners include the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Agriculture and Agri-Food
Canada, Canada Border Services Agency, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Natural Resources
Canada, Parks Canada, Transport Canada and all provincial ministries responsible for forestry,
fisheries and aquaculture, parks and natural resources. Many First Nations and nongovernmental partners are also involved.

The Invasive Alien Species Partnership Program (IASPP) is central to the federal IAS strategy.
The IASPP provides funding to provinces, municipalities, educational institutions, and nongovernment organizations.[3] Since the first call for proposals in 2006, the IASPP has received
over 750 proposals from groups interested in initiating projects. To date, only 143 projects have
been approved.
One of the most significant challenges to preventing invasions of and controlling invasive
species is the absence of a coherent framework for ensuring that activities that may result in the
transfer of invasive species are closely monitored and prohibitions are enforced. An effective
way to address federal-provincial coordination problems is the use of mirror laws.
The first major mirror law was the 1984 Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act (TDGA). The
TDGA was adopted after a terrifying train derailment in Mississauga in 1979 involving
unlabeled containers of chlorine gas. This near tragedy shocked millions of Canadians and put
pressure on all levels of government to develop a comprehensive set of statutes that recognized
the validity of laws passed by other jurisdictions. The result was that most gaps and loopholes
between and among the various jurisdictions were eliminated by 1986. Federal standards on
labelling and handling of dangerous goods now prevail across Canada, and inter-jurisdictional
work is coordinated by an agency called CANUTEC.[4]
The Canadian Environmental Protection Act (first adopted in 1988, revised in 1999 - CEPA)
also uses the mirror law concept. Under CEPA, the federal government must find that provincial
regulations provide the same level of protection as do federal regulations adopted under CEPA.
Under the CEPA equivalency provisions, the federal government may then recognize the
provincial rules as being equivalent to CEPA rules.
The 2002 Species at Risk Act (SARA) could be of great help in controlling the spread of invasive
species in Canada, but unlike the TDGA and CEPA, SARA only applies on federal land. That is,
unless the federal government finds that a species is in trouble and that the province does not
have adequate legislation to protect the species or is not doing a good job of ensuring the
recovery of the species. In such cases, the federal government can issue an emergency order that
makes SARA apply on provincial land. SARA is under review by federal Parliament. It may be
a good idea to consider whether it deals with invasive species adequately, and whether tougher
regulations to protect native species from invasives should apply everywhere in Canada,

including on non-federal land. Doing so would give provinces an incentive to get serious about
adopting and enforcing mirror rules in this area.

*David McRobert is a Peterborough-based environmental lawyer. He was senior counsel at the

Environmental Commissioner of Ontario from 1994 until June 2010 and has been working on
invasive species since the late 1970s. He can be reached at if you
would like to obtain a copy of a Powerpoint presentation on invasive species he made to a
Biology Department Seminar at Trent University on March 30, 2011.

[1] A. V. Stronen, 2002. Impacts on Canadian Species at Risk from Invasive Alien Species.
Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada.

[2] Environment Canada, 2004. An Invasive Alien Species Strategy for Canada.
[3] The program is intended to engage Canadians in actions to prevent, detect, and respond
rapidly to invasive alien species in order to minimize the risk the species pose to the
environment, economy and society. Find out more about the IASPP: