KEY FINDING 15.Canada is well endowed with a natural environment that provides ecosystem services upon which our quality of life depends. In some areas where stressors have impaired ecosystem function, the cost of maintaining ecosystem services is high and deterioration in quantity, quality, and access to ecosystem services is evident.
Ecosystems provide the direct goods and indirect services that ensure human well-being. These are collectively referred to as ecosystem services. Ecosystem services include: regulating services, such as the mitigation of flood and drought, the filtration of air and water, and the control of pest populations; provisioning services, such as food, fibre, and water; cultural services, such as education, recreation, psychological health, and spiritual experience; and the supporting services necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services, such as soil formation and nutrient cycling.1
Ecosystem services are important because they provide critical life support, they underpin our economy and quality of life, and the full suite of services cannot be duplicated with human-made alternatives.
Some observed trends that affect ecosystem services
Examples of changes in biomes, habitat, wildlife, and ecosystem processes presented in other key findings that affect ecosystem services, as viewed through the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment framework.1
Approximately 60% of ecosystem services globally are being degraded or used unsustainably, including 70% of provisioning services.2
A range of ecosystem characteristics and socio-economic factors impact the delivery and maintenance of ecosystem services. While changes in provisioning services are usually the most obvious, they often result from changes in regulating and supporting services and can be closely tied to changes in cultural services. Many ecosystem services are complementary, with changes in multiple services being driven by a common factor. The following examples illustrate some types of threats to the ongoing provision of ecosystem services in Canada.
Declining populations despite human intervention
Since 1971, hatchery-reared coho salmon have been released into the Strait of Georgia to supplement wild stocks.3 Declining marine production and survival, likely driven in part by changes in climate,4, 5 combined with high exploitation rates, have led to severe overall coho population declines.6 While exploitation rates have decreased, populations have not recovered and overall abundance is still declining.5, 6
Marine survival and exploitation of coho in the Georgia Strait, B.C.
Percent survival and percent adults caught (exploitation), 1986 to 2006
The Fortymile caribou herd, once an important source of food and supplies for people in Yukon, declined from a population of 500,000 in the early 1900s to 7,000 in the late 1960s.8 Declines were likely the result of bad winters, overharvesting, and fragmentation of the landscape. The population has rebounded to 43,000 since the early 1980s, attributed mainly to harvest restrictions and a wolf control program. The range of the herd is now a fraction of its historical extent, with the caribou rarely crossing the border into Canada.8
Changing environmental conditions
Changing sea-ice conditions have significant impacts on northern communities that depend on ice for harvest activities. Residents of Igloolik Island, for example, are essentially cut off from their surroundings while the ice is forming, unable to travel to harvest sites located off the island.9 Freeze-up is starting significantly later in the year and it is taking longer for ice to fully form.10 Igloolik residents are highly dependent on subsistence harvesting but there are limited opportunities on the island. As a result, residents are taking increasing risks to harvest seals at ice edges and are travelling across unstable ice to harvest caribou on the mainland.
Similar decreases in access related to ice conditions have been noted for the communities of Sachs Harbour,11 Ulukhaktok,12 and Churchill,9 though the impact on residents is community-dependent.
Other types of environmental change have also impaired access to provisioning services. For example, the development of the Lake Winnipeg Churchill-Nelson River diversion has reduced the ability of the Cree to navigate lakes and streams in order to harvest food and obtain supplies.13
Changing wildlife behaviour
Despite increases in the population of Canada geese in the eastern Taiga Shield since the mid-1990s,14 success of the goose harvest among James Bay Cree has declined.15 The Cree report that the geese fly higher and further inland and that the migration period is shorter in recent years. It is thought that these behavioural changes are caused by altered weather patterns, reduction of eelgrass meadows, and impacts from hydroelectric development.16 Changes in goose behaviour are compounded by changes in environmental conditions during harvest, particularly less predictable spring ice break-up patterns on the coast. These factors combine to reduce the number of suitable or accessible harvest sites. Traditional harvest is based on the systematic rotation and “resting” of a number of harvest sites grouped around a base camp. A decrease in harvest sites, as shown between 1979 and 2006, leads to increased pressure on the remaining sites, further contributing to the problem.16
Spring goose harvest at Blackstone Bay, Wemindji, Quebec
Decrease in suitable or accessible harvest sites
Source: 1979 map adapted from Scott, 1983 in Peloquin, 2007;16
2006 map adapted from Peloquin, 200716
Failure to recognize the economic value of healthy ecosystems has contributed to the continuing decline of biodiversity worldwide.17 Duplication or replacement of ecosystem services with human-made alternatives is costly and can lack complementary services such as cultural value. Valuation of ecosystem services is a way to include biodiversity considerations in decision making about land use and economic activity and to measure the importance of biodiversity to people. The economic value of many provisioning services, such as the production of fish or timber, is often easily estimated because the products have well-defined prices. It is more complicated to place a value on non-market ecosystem services. A large-scale valuation study of ecosystems within the boreal region of Canada18 provides a framework for more detailed valuations in specific areas.
Ecosystem services of Ontario’s greenbelt
Source: adapted from the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, 200924
Ontario’s Greenbelt Act of 2005 protected 7,604 km2 of land from further urban development in the Golden Horseshoe region of southern Ontario. This area supports a quarter of Canada’s population and is the fastest growing region in North America.23 The greenbelt is made up of green spaces, farmlands, communities, forests, wetlands, and watersheds, and includes habitat for more than a third of Ontario’s species at risk.23
The estimated total value of the area’s measurable non-market ecosystem services is approximately $2.6 billion annually.23 This estimate is likely low due to an incomplete understanding of all benefits provided by the greenbelt and the difficulty of assigning a value that represents and reflects the importance of the area to people. The value of the greenbelt is likely to increase with time as the ecosystems protected within it become increasingly rare.23
Valuation of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq caribou herds
The relationship between people of northern Canada and caribou has developed over thousands of years and underpins many cultural values. People living in the range of the Beverly caribou herd, for example, have harvested caribou for approximately 8,000 years.19
An examination of the services provided by the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq caribou herds found that the value of harvest, including meat, hides, and antlers, is approximately $19.9 million per year.20 Previous studies in the region, augmented with questionnaires and interviews, concluded that traditional harvest of caribou and associated activities were viewed by people throughout the range of the two herds as integral to the maintenance and transfer of knowledge, skills, and culture. Many people interviewed talked about how important the caribou harvest was to their identity and to the revitalization of their communities.20
The ecosystem services that people of the North derive from caribou are threatened. The Beverly herd has declined severely since the last survey in 1994.21 As a result, people from northern Saskatchewan who traditionally harvest Beverly caribou have had to fly north or east for their harvest. These caribou may be from other declining herds, such as the Qamanirjuaq, Bathurst, or Ahiak.21, 22