Ecosystem Services

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Photo: drying salmon ©
Drying salmon

Provisioning services

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
<img alt="Graph: marine survival and exploitation of coho Graph: marine survival and exploitation of coho in the Georgia Strait, B.C. Click for graphic description (new window).
Long Description for Marine survival and exploitation of coho in the Georgia Strait, B.C.

This line graph shows the percent survival of wild and hatchery coho and the percent of adults caught (referred to as exploitation) in Georgia Strait from 1986 to 2006. Over this period, the survival of wild and hatchery coho in Georgia Strait followed the same general trend, though hatchery survival was lower. In 1988 wild and hatchery coho survival reached peaks of approximately 18% and 12% respectively. Hatchery coho survival then declined to a level of less than 1% in 1998. Wild coho survival also declined to a low of approximately 3% in 1999. Survival of both hatchery and wild coho then increased until 2001, reaching lower peaks of 7% and 4% respectively. After 2001, both survival rates declined again, to approximately 2% (wild coho survival) and less than 1% (hatchery coho survival) in 2006. Exploitation remained close to 80% from 1986 to 1994, after which it declined steeply to approximately 10% in 1998. From 1998 to 2006, the exploitation rate fluctuated between 10% and 20%. In 2006, exploitation was at approximately 10%.

Source: updated from Simpson et al, 20017
Photo: Fortymile caribou © David Cartier Sr.


Contracting ranges and shrinking populations

Fortymile caribou herd
Map : current and historic range of the Fortymile caribou herd. Click for graphic description (new window).
Long Description for Contracting ranges and shrinking populations

This map shows the historical range (early 1900s) and the current range (2005) of the Fortymile caribou herd. The historical range was on both sides of the Yukon/Alaska border. In the Yukon, the majority of the historical range was within the Boreal Cordillera Ecozone+, including Dawson and extending south to just north of Whitehorse, with a smaller portion extending into the Taiga Cordillera Ecozone+. In Alaska, the historical range extended northwest, encompassing the city of Fairbanks. The current range is much smaller, only extending a short distance into the Boreal Cordillera Ecozone+ and no longer encompassing Dawson. Most of the current range is within Alaska, though it no longer approaches Fairbanks.

Source: adapted from Environment Yukon, 20058

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.

Sea ice freeze-up, Igloolik, Nunavut
Date of freeze-up, 1969 to 2005
Graph: sea ice freeze-up, Igloolik, Nunavut. Click for graphic description (new window).
Long Description for Sea ice freeze-up, Igloolik, Nunavut

This graph shows the annual date of sea ice freeze-up in Igloolik, Nunavut from 1969 to 2005. The date of freeze-up fluctuated from year to year by up to 30 days. A trend line shows an overall advancing sea ice freeze-up of 0.7 days later per year, a total of about 25 days later over the period of the study. In 1969 the freeze-up date was approximately September 30th and in 2005 it was November 5th. An inset map shows the location of Igloolik in the Arctic Ecozone+.

Source: adapted from Laidler et al, 200910

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

Photo: Canada goose ©

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
Two maps showing a decrease in spring goose harvest sites at Blackstone Bay, Wemindiji, Quebec. Click for graphic description (new window).
Long Description for Spring goose harvest at Blackstone Bay, Wemindji, Quebec

These two maps show spring goose harvest sites around Blackstone Bay, Wemindji, Quebec in 1979 and 2006. In 1979, 13 spring goose harvesting sites surrounded the base camp, while in 2006 only 4 harvesting sites surrounded the base camp, showing a decline in the number of suitable or accessible harvest sites. An inset map of Canada shows the location of Blackstone Bay, Wemindji, Quebec in the Taiga Shield Ecozone+.

Source: 1979 map adapted from Scott, 1983 in Peloquin, 2007;16
2006 map adapted from Peloquin, 200716

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Photo: Holland Marsh, Ontario © Tim Hagen
Holland Marsh, Ontario

Valuation of ecosystem services

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

Map: Ontario's greenbelt. Click for graphic description (new window).
Long Description for Ecosystem services of Ontario’s greenbelt

This map of the Golden Horseshoe region of southern Ontario shows the extent of the greenbelt. The greenbelt borders the perimeter of Toronto, reaching from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe and around Guelph to Niagara Falls. A thin strip of the green belt extends up past Owen Sound to the tip of the Bruce Peninsula.

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

Ecosystem service Annual value (millions)
Habitat $548
Flood control (wetlands) $380
Carbon storage and uptake $377
Agricultural pollination $298
Water runoff control by forests $278
Water filtration $131
Natural regeneration $98
Recreation and aesthetics $95
Cultural/spiritual $66
Biological control $8
Soil formation $6
Nutrient cycling $2
Erosion control <$1

Source : Wilson, 200823

Valuation of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq caribou herds

Map: Beverly and Qamanirjuaq caribou herds. Click for graphic description (new window).
Long Description for Valuation of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq caribou herds

This map of Canada shows the location of the ranges of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq caribou herds. The range of the Qamanirjuaq herd extends west from the western side of Hudson Bay including the southern portion of the Arctic Ecozone+, the Taiga Shield Ecozone+, and the very northern part of the Boreal Shield Ecozone+. The range of the Beverly herd overlaps the western boundary of the Quamanirjuaq herd, and extends further west to the boundary of the Taiga Plains Ecozone+.


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

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