Key finding overview
KEY FINDING 21. Long-term, standardized, spatially complete, and readily accessible monitoring information, complemented by ecosystem research, provides the most useful findings for policy-relevant assessments of status and trends. The lack of this type of information in many areas has hindered development of this assessment.
This key finding is divided into two sections:
- Key finding overview (this page)
- What we've learned
Biodiversity monitoring is the process of determining status and tracking changes in living organisms and the ecological complexes of which they are a part.1 Biodiversity monitoring is important because it provides a basis for evaluating the integrity of ecosystems, their responses to disturbances, and the success of actions taken to conserve or recover biodiversity. Research addresses questions and tests hypotheses about how these ecosystems function and change and how they interact with stressors. Ecological research provides the context for interpreting these monitoring results. Policy and management needs guide the development of monitoring.
A comprehensive review of the status of Canada’s ecological monitoring and information systems is beyond the scope of this report. This section presents observations and lessons learned about the strengths and weaknesses of information and its availability for assessing status and trends of Canada’s ecosystems.
Ecosystem trends: how good are the data?
Good to fair for some trends
Includes climate trends, some animal population trends, and trends that can be measured across large areas using remote sensing (like sea-ice extent and mountain pine beetle effects) or through national databases (like protected areas). Quality of data can vary with region – for example, the majority of stream-flow monitoring stations are in the southern half of the country and near population centres.3 There are excellent, valuable datasets for many local and regional trends. Some examples: geese arrival dates at Delta Marsh, acidity levels in Boreal Shield lakes, contaminants in Great Lakes fish, and status of commercially valuable fish species.
Poor for some trends
There are good data for some specific areas and time periods – but the big picture is often missing. Coverage is not good enough to understand some important trends at the biome level – such as changes in extent of coastal habitats and wetlands. Trends in many species groups and in ecosystem aspects important to biodiversity, such as permafrost, food web structures, and the spread of all but a few invasive species, are inferred from data from a few locations.
Missing for some trends
Includes trends in processes and species groups that are undoubtedly important for the maintenance of healthy ecosystems and that may be undergoing significant change. There is little to no information on trends in processes like decomposition and pollination and on trends for most non-commercial species, non-flowering plant species, invertebrates, and smaller organisms like soil bacteria. The result is that trends for these ecosystem components are not reported in this assessment.
What we've learned
Piecing together information from many disparate sources is currently the only way to assess ecosystem status and trends.
Current ecosystem monitoring is conducted at different spatial and time scales, measures different parameters, and uses different protocols for data collection and analysis. The result is a mosaic of information, reflected in the gaps in this assessment and in the mid to low confidence assigned to many key findings. This is a long-standing problem for Canada, as for other countries,4, 5 and can only be resolved through attention to setting policy-relevant monitoring priorities and to design and consistent operation of long-term monitoring systems.
Assessment capacity can be improved through maintaining and building on existing long–term monitoring, but new initiatives may be required to meet policy needs.
Monitoring programs most useful for this assessment had good statistical design, consistent protocols, and broad spatial coverage based on ecosystems, rather than jurisdictions. Their value in measuring trends and detecting rapid and unexpected change increased with consistency and length of records. Few such programs with long-term records exist in Canada, and none exist for many important ecological components. Some trend records are out of date due to cuts to environmental monitoring since the 1990s.3, 6 Some new initiatives started in the past decade will provide trend information for future assessments – for example, monitoring and assessment of ecological integrity of national parks7 and monitoring of cumulative impacts in Alberta ecosystems8 – but many gaps remain. Canada also faces a shortage in taxonomic expertise, which hampers some biodiversity monitoring.9-11
Routine government monitoring programs designed for resource management also provide trend information on aspects of ecosystems – but are often limited in their applicability to biodiversity assessment. For example, some forest inventory systems group tree species by commercial use, while, for biodiversity assessment, trees need to be grouped by ecological significance. There is scope for adapting some managementfocused monitoring to fill gaps in ecological monitoring.
Ecological research is an important resource for trend data. Research programs based on multi-disciplinary approaches provided this assessment with some of the best insights into changes in ecosystem functions and structures. However, monitoring associated with research is often short term, ending when the research cycle is over. Monitoring programs that involve community volunteers,12 such as the Breeding Bird Survey,13 are another important resource. Investment in program design, data management and reporting, as well as ongoing training and support to volunteers, ensures that results are consistent, long–term, and relevant.14, 15
Traditional and local knowledge are rarely incorporated into monitoring programs and were underutilized in this assessment.
Documented Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge (ATK) available in the public domain was compiled for this assessment, but for the most part it was not incorporated effectively. Efforts to insert ATK into reports on status and trends raised concerns about presenting excerpts of knowledge out of their cultural context and concerns about representativeness of the knowledge, especially as time periods and spatial scales were often not specified.16, 17 Local observation and knowledge of change (not restricted to Aboriginal Peoples) is a related, underutilized resource.18, 19 Bringing different knowledge systems together in complementary ways remains a challenge for ecological monitoring and assessment.17,20-22
Improving publishing practices, as well as information management and archiving, would make monitoring results more accessible for policy and decision-making.
Overall, information on ecosystem status and trends in Canada is very scattered – it is difficult to find out what is available and where it is located and the information itself is of variable quality. Improvements require coordination and attention to data management and publication practices.
Information management is crucial to the integrity, long-term usefulness, and accessibility of monitoring results. Effective monitoring programs include organization and documentation of datasets, secure storage in long-term, searchable archives, and regular review and quality checks. With advances in technology, datasets have become larger and more complex, thereby requiring more resources to manage. At the same time, techniques for analyzing data spatially and for sharing data across networks present opportunities for viewing and synthesizing environmental information in new ways – and also increase the need for coordinated data policies and standards.
Observations on the accessibility of information for this assessment
- Published scientific literature was the most accessible and useful source of information for most aspects of the assessment, particularly papers that presented monitoring results in relation to research on ecosystems and stressors.
- Also useful, though sometimes more difficult to locate, were well-referenced assessment reports (on regions and onthemes) and results-oriented reports produced through monitoring programs.
- Some comprehensive datasets were accessible, mainly through government agencies, but other, especially older, datasets were difficult or impossible to track down. An advancement that contributed to this assessment is the move to including digital supplemental information, like data and maps, with publications.
- Many unpublished reports and websites accessed were out of date and/or did not have sufficient information about the data they were based on to make them useful and credible sources.
New technologies and applications are expanding horizons in biodiversity monitoring.
Remote sensing (using data collected by satellite) is increasing in usefulness for ecological monitoring, a trend that should continue with lengthening time series and if advances continue to be made in the development of applications and analytical capacity.23, 24 Remote sensing, when verified and complemented with data from ground-based observations, can provide consistent, repeatable measurements of changes in ecosystems across broad scales. There are, however, limitations to what can be detected from space. For example, only major changes to prairie wetlands can be detected because small, dried-up wetlands are usually indistinguishable from the surrounding land.25
Examples of use of remote sensing in this assessment
Analysis of ice-cover seasons on large lakes using remote sensing allowed trends to be derived for the Arctic, a region with few ground-based observations.26 Remote sensing also improved detection of large forest fires,27 provided trends for Arctic sea-ice extent,28 measured broad-scale change in Western Arctic vegetation at treeline,29 and provided trends in primary productivity across the country.30 Onetime analyses of land cover,31 and forest fragmentation32, 33 provided measures of status, with potential to provide trends in the future.
Policy–relevant ecosystem status and trends information is best delivered through a partnership of policy, research, and monitoring.
Specific information needs arise within ecozones+ that are often aspects of the more general information gaps. Well-designed biodiversity monitoring adapts to address regional needs while maintaining a set of core measurements for comparison across regions and over time.35 Monitoring is needed to detect changes over time and space, and research is needed to understand the significance of these changes – this is an iterative process.36 Networks based on ecosystem components (like permafrost) or species groups (like seabirds) play a strong role in fostering dialogue and coordination between these two aspects of ecosystem science.
Information gaps identified while developing this assessment are documented in thematic and ecozone+ technical reports. Common themes emerged:
- Poor understanding of thresholds, baselines, and natural ranges of variability in ecosystems
- Limited information on changes in food web structures
- Little research and monitoring that addresses cumulative impacts over time and impacts from interacting stressors
- Little information for assessing trends in capacity of ecosystems to provide goods and services
- Growing need for information on responses of ecosystems to climate change
- Trends in abundance and other measures, such as reproductive success, available for only a few species groups
- Poor understanding of biodiversity status, trends, and ecological processes in some dominant biomes including aquatic ecosystems, wetlands, boreal forests, and coastal zones
- Poor monitoring coverage for less-populated and harder-to-access regions
Some information needs for marine ecozones+
This summary shows examples of common themes and ecozone+–specific needs identified for the marine ecozones+.37 Research and monitoring, working together, are needed to fill these gaps.
Common to all ecozones+
- Status and trends related to coastal biome
- Long-term trends in fish and zooplankton, and their food web linkages
- Accurate population abundance estimates
- Accurate status and trends estimates, lacking for many species, particularly benthic and non-commercial species
Ecozone+-specific information needs
|Strait of Georgia||
|West coast Vancouver Island||
|North coast and Hecate Strait||
|Canadian Arctic Archipelago||
|Hudson Bay, James Bay and Foxe Basin||
|Newfoundland and Labrador Shelves||
|Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence||
|Gulf of Maine and Scotian Shelf||