Chinese mystery snail in Alberta: a very spe-shell case

By Paige Kuczmarski, Alberta Environment and Parks

Although this isn’t our regular snail’s pitch of stopping the spread of aquatic invasive species (AIS) with “Clean, Drain, Dry” or “Don’t let it Loose”, we still need your undivided attention! We were shell-shocked to find our first location of the invasive Chinese mystery snail (Cipangopaludina chinensis) in Alberta this year in McGregor Lake! This species is one of 52 prohibited species listed on the Fisheries (Alberta) Act, meaning we must fight tooth and snail to slow this species from spreading. We need you to come out of your shell and help us with ANY information, such as dates, photos or locations of Chinese mystery snail you may have seen in the past few years. A photo was shared with us showing two people holding up the large snail shells, which gives us reason to believe it has been here since 2016.

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This snail is very noticeable with a large, globular shell that can reach sizes of 6 cm. Distinct sutures and fine growth lines on the brown to olive colored shell also help with identification. Chinese mystery snail can be found buried in soft muddy or sandy substrates in freshwater lakes, streams and rivers. This species of snail can tolerate less than ideal conditions and survive out of water for up to 4 weeks due to the protection provided by an operculum or ‘trap-door’ – this alone warrants concern for further spread through transportation of watercrafts or gear.

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In a nutshell, Chinese mystery snail is named after its mysterious reproductive abilities of giving birth to fully developed juvenile snails, which can happen as many as 169 time per year! This species can impact the growth and abundance of native snail species by competing for habitat and resources, as well as effect water intake pipes and other submerged equipment as their large shells can clog and stop water flow. Furthermore, Chinese mystery snail are considered edible and often sold in Chinese food markets despite it being an intermediate host to multiple parasites that could impact human health. Basically, its ability to rapidly reproduce, tolerate unfavorable conditions and out-compete native species shows that Chinese mystery snails have all the characteristics that make a species highly invasive – any details you may have would help us before this population spirals out of control!

Always remember:

  • To avoid snail mail! Always report aquatic invasive species through EDDMapS Alberta or directly through email, ais@gov.ab.ca or by phone, 1-855-336-BOAT (2628).
  • Don’t be shell-fish! Don’t let it loose – never release live animals, plants or aquarium water into the environment.
  • Take it slow! Always Clean, Drain, Dry your gear before moving between waterbodies.
  • If it’s a mystery to you, learn to identify Alberta’s 52 prohibited aquatic invasive species using our pocket guide.Lake McGregor 2019 NK_0041.JPG

Looking Back and Looking Forward: Catching up with Chief Scientist Dr. Fred Wrona

By Jeannine Goehing, Office of the Chief Scientist

Chief Scientists and Chief Science Advisors hold unique roles in federal, provincial or territorial jurisdictions across Canada, serving as trusted authorities on scientific matters. Through broad knowledge networks, these senior specialists act in the public interest and provide the public and elected officials the best available advice on relevant and emerging scientific topics.

In the Canadian context, Alberta has shown leadership in this area since 2016 when Dr. Fred Wrona was appointed Chief Scientist for Alberta Environment and Parks — the first position of its kind in the Ministry. The role of Chief Scientist was established in legislation through amendments to the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, representing a commitment to transparent and unbiased scientific reporting on the condition of Alberta’s environment.

Dr. Wrona brings more than 30 years of experience in the scientific community to the role, and the development and implementation of programs to monitor, evaluate and report on the condition of Alberta’s environment. As a champion of science, he promotes evidence-informed decision-making when it comes to the policies, programs and management decisions that impact Alberta’s natural resources.

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Dr. Fred Wrona speaking at the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) conference in Ottawa – November, 2019

Below, the Chief Scientist answers questions about progress made since 2016, and what the future holds for environmental monitoring in Alberta.

What has changed in Alberta’s environmental monitoring programs over the past three years?

FW: We’ve been systematically updating our program designs, targeting specific information needs and objectives while being efficient and effective in light of limited resources. For example, we updated our river monitoring program by reaffirming station placements across various watersheds and expanding monitoring in areas where we had limited information.

We’ve also run our programs through our two independent advisory panels, the Science Advisory Panel and the Indigenous Wisdom Advisory Panel, with national and international experts who are highly recognized authorities in their fields. There’s no textbook written on how to do this, but we’re looking at opportunities to braid and utilize multiple knowledge systems such as conventional western science, Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous wisdom.

We’ve released the Five-Year (2019-2024) Science Strategy – a first for this department – informing the public, internal and external science partners about the collaborative approach, tools, processes and priority areas of Alberta’s environmental science program. As part of the Science Strategy, I’ve been working very hard on fostering partnerships and collaborative opportunities, for example with the major universities in Alberta. I’ve co-located part of our program with the University of Calgary and created a Centre of Excellence in environmental monitoring and cumulative effects assessments.

We are also developing science integrity guidelines for what it means to be a practicing scientist within Alberta Environment and Parks. This highlights the importance of not only science, but what it takes to ensure that we demonstrate credibility and integrity in our science moving forward. I’m quite keen on that.

What has changed, over the past three years, specific to environmental monitoring in the oil sands region?

FW: The Oil Sands Monitoring (OSM) Program is one of the largest environmental monitoring programs in the world, monitoring and reporting on the environmental state of the oil sands region led by the governments of Alberta and Canada.

It’s complex because we’re dealing with air, water, land, biological and ecological resources, and engaging with First Nation and Metis communities in the affected areas. We’re also dealing with public concerns and perceptions both within the region and around the world.

One of the biggest changes in the last several years has been focusing the science design so that the data it yields helps address key questions from stakeholders. We don’t just monitor for monitoring’s sake – the information has to be relevant.

The recognition that Indigenous participation in the design and implementation of the program is also absolutely essential. We created an oversight committee that’s multi-interest and multi-stakeholder, involving governments, First Nation and Métis communities, and industry. Their job is to make sure the program meets approval requirements, and just as importantly, that it addresses whether regulations we have in place are protecting the environment.

As Chief Scientist, how important is connecting scientific information to the public and decision-makers?

FW: A really good medical doctor can make the implications and consequences of a complicated treatment understandable to a patient – even if it’s complex information. Environmental science communication is a similar scenario.

We need solid, proper, peer-reviewed and technically-robust papers and analyses that speak to what the science and data really mean. But when I try to explain those pieces of science to the public – or a tougher critic, my mother – how I convey that information will determine whether I succeed in getting the point across. How we translate information to the public and decision-makers matters.

We’re looking at developing accessible communications products using digital tools that can convey highly technical information in ways that are understandable and digestible. We’re also working on making our data systems more directly accessible outside the Ministry, so people can access them openly and run their own queries. Building trust is about being transparent – providing information to the public, other researchers and stakeholders so they can derive their own conclusions.

A final area is training. How can you be an effective communicator as a scientist? We ran a special workshop on science communication and we’re excited to continue to offer and expand on that to support our science community in more effectively communicating information.

What are you most proud of when you look back over the past three years?

FW: I’m really excited about utilizing what I consider more out of the box thinking for delivering our programs. Being open brings in innovation, creativity and excitement to the people involved in the programs. Networking and engaging with other people that have a passion for knowledge is a win-win for all of us.

I’m also pleased to see that people are curious about the role of the Chief Scientist and how we can help facilitate the way science is being done in the department. We’re getting more phone calls and we’re becoming more visible. Outside organizations are also asking more about working with us. I’m part of a national network working with the federal Chief Scientists and they’re very interested in Alberta.

The way our office was set up under legislation is unique in Canada, and internationally. This office doesn’t just have an advisory function, but a legislated responsibility for reporting. That puts a very different impetus on us. Alberta is leading on this front.

What opportunities and priorities do you see for environmental monitoring in Alberta moving forward?

FW: We’re in a new era of communication, but also of miscommunication and misinformation. We have to play a very important role of sharing good, factual research and ensuring it isn’t open to misinterpretation and distortion.

Timeliness is also critical. Data and data systems without qualified interpretation isn’t helpful, so we need to build rapid processes. For example, some of our new monitoring systems are sensor-based and can get information to the public and stakeholders in real-time. It’s challenging, takes innovative thinking, investment and resources, and we need to look at that.

People are keen to get engaged in the environmental issues and agenda of how we move forward. It requires standards, protocols and procedures to effectively use data we produce out of that kind of relationship and we are working on that.

I’ve worked hard on fostering the importance of knowledge networks, recognizing that we need to build on science and research strengths, both within and outside of government. We will continue integrating internal and external knowledge networks to help achieve our outcomes.

 

 

 

 

Monitoring Alberta’s air quality during wildfire smoke events

By Jeannine Goehing, Office of the Chief Scientist

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Aerial photo of the smoke plume during the 2016 Horse River Wildfire in the Fort McMurray area. Source: Marty Collins

AQHI Map

37 Alberta communities report on the Air Quality Health Index, also known as AQHI, from Fort Chipewyan in the north to Lethbridge in the south, and from Beaverlodge in the west to Cold Lake in the east. The AQHI tool reports on health risks associated with air quality – low numbers in blue indicate low heath risk while higher numbers in red indicate high risk.

A 10 is a number no one likes to see when it comes to air quality – it means the air we breathe contains pollutants that can pose health risks. For much of the summer of 2018, for example, many parts of Alberta experienced smoke-filled air that made it hard to breathe, due to a record-breaking fire season in British Columbia.

As much as we wish for clear skies and clean air year-round, wildfire season officially runs from March through to the end of October in Alberta. The smell of smoke and hazy sights of our city skylines and mountain ranges are telling signs when fires are burning across Western Canada.

Wildfires in Alberta

It is common to see more than 1,000 fires during wildfire season in Alberta, many of which start early in the season, even when snow still covers the ground. As of October 31, 2019, Alberta has recorded 1,003 wildfires in the Forest Protection Area that have burned 883,415 hectares.

“In recent years, we saw bigger, more intense wildfires in the province that led to major impacts on air quality in affected regions and the province at large, for example during the 2016 Horse River Wildfire in Fort McMurray,” says Naomi Tam, Air Quality Specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP). Predictions show that Alberta will continue to see larger wildfires.

Air monitoring of top importance

Working together with Alberta’s Airsheds, air monitoring staff at AEP measure Alberta’s air and report air conditions to the public year-round. “During wildfire season, staff are on stand-by mode to quickly respond to emergency wildfire smoke events. We have several mobile analyzers ready to be moved across the province to measure smoke conditions,” says Marty Collins, Air Monitoring Manager with AEP.

Data from mobile analyzers and over 70 air monitoring stations permanently located across Alberta are used to inform the public, wildland firefighters, and the Ministry of Health about health risks stemming from wildfire smoke.

Improving wildfire smoke monitoring

“Air scientists at AEP are working to improve wildfire smoke monitoring, air quality forecasting and reporting to the public,” says Casandra Brown, Air Quality Specialist with AEP.

For example, in partnership with the University of Alberta, AEP is developing solar-powered micro-stations that could support early detection of forest fire smoke and fill gaps in Alberta’s existing air monitoring network.

In May 2019, AEP in collaboration with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry and Natural Resources Canada, deployed these portable, low-cost micro-sensors for the first time to monitor controlled burns at a remote forest location.

 

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Dr. Quamrul Huda with Alberta Environment and Parks holds a prototype of the new micro-station

 

How Albertans stay informed on air quality

When you are on the Air Quality Health Index website or the AQHI Canada app, you see air quality readings for 37 Alberta communities that report on the AQHI.

The AQHI is reported on a 10-point coloured scale, where lower AQHI numbers in blue indicate low heath risk while higher numbers in red indicate high risk. All data is updated hourly.

An AQHI of 7 or higher will prompt air quality advisories, for example, when wildfire smoke causes poor air quality.

 

AQHI Scale

The Air Quality Health Index informs Albertans about the health risk associated with local air quality.

Learn more

More information on wildfires in Alberta can be found at wildfire.alberta.ca.

More details on air quality events related to wildfire smoke can found at environmentalmonitoring.alberta.ca

Explore more recent publications on air quality during the Horse River Wildfire in the Fort McMurray area:

Are you a policy practitioner interested in learnings from recent air monitoring studies? See the Briefing for Policy Practitioners

Bringing Back the Fish – International recognition for Alberta’s fisheries science

By Jeannine Goehing, Office of the Chief Scientist
September 2019

Equipped with balloons, a group of biologists traveled from across the province to Dr. Michael Sullivan’s lab in Edmonton for a special announcement. The Provincial Fisheries Science Specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks is the 2019 recipient of the Award of Excellence from the Fisheries Management Section of the American Fisheries Society, recognizing his inspirational leadership in the fishery profession and substantial achievements for fisheries resources.

“First, I thought it was a joke,” Michael laughs. “I’m honored that my colleagues think I did something good, but to me the award is nothing compared to a three-year old catching walleye at Lac Ste. Anne, or telling Néhiyaw high school kids in Wetaskiwin to go fishing because fishing is good again.”

By receiving the prestigious international award, Michael joins a group of 32 exceptional individuals awarded for substantial achievements in the fishery profession. The award recognizes his outstanding contributions to walleye recovery in Alberta, his leadership in systems thinking and his mentorship in developing the fisheries team at Environment and Parks.

 

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Dr. Michael Sullivan with a silver redhorse fish – a bottom feeder native to Alberta – on the North Saskatchewan River.

From local pressures to international recognition

When it comes to fishing, Alberta finds itself between a rock and a hard place. “We have the rock of low fish productivity and the hard place of lots of people, tons of development and road access,” Michael explains.

Alberta’s fisheries are busy places: with 800 naturally fish-bearing lakes and over 300,000 anglers, think of 375 anglers for every lake in Alberta compared to two anglers for every lake in Saskatchewan with its tens of thousands of lakes.

Alberta’s cold climate and short growing season also results in fewer fish species and fewer individuals compared to southern locations. This in turn makes Alberta fish more susceptible to being caught – ultimately increasing their vulnerability to overharvest.

“The enhanced catchability in northern locations compared to similar species in southern locations is because northern waters have fewer fish species and thus fish can’t be picky. Northern predators must eat whatever is available, whenever it is possible,” Michael explains. “Anglers see this as: these northern fish are easy to catch. They bite on anything!”

The dilemma hasn’t gone unnoticed. The international fisheries community is looking to Alberta for solutions.

“This weird combination of what we call northern style biology and southern style fishing pressure led us to be at the forefront of fish conservation. We didn’t have a choice but to solve this,” explains Michael.

Shifting the baseline

Growing up in northern Saskatchewan, Michael always knew what he wanted to be. It all started with tales told by his dad, a military helicopter mechanic with the Geological Survey Canada in Canada’s North.

“He told me tales of caribou herds stretching to the horizon, barren-ground grizzly bears coming to the camp, dropping biologists off in remote places in the tundra, and I just fell in love with the wilderness and the stories,” Michael remembers. “Right from my father’s knee I wanted to be one of these guys – a biologist.”

Michael’s passion for wildlife biology led him through three academic degrees at the University of Alberta, where he currently serves as Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

Being from Saskatchewan, Michael also knew what good fishing looked like. During his first job as a junior biologist in St. Paul in 1983, however, he discovered fishing in Alberta wasn’t comparable to Saskatchewan.

“Fisheries had been collapsed so long in Alberta, people thought that poor fishing was normal – it’s called the shifting baseline,” he elaborates. “Luckily, I came from a different place without blinders on my eyes and I spent 15 years fighting to change the baseline.”

But shifting the baseline was no easy task.

“We couldn’t just tweak our way out of these problems. We had to throw some levers hard – for example, we had to go catch-and-release for years on the North Saskatchewan River,” explains Michael.

Part of the change was a new culture of fisheries science: “We changed the culture to one of systems thinking, critical thinking, hypothesis testing and adaptive management.”

The second part of the change meant having boots on the ground and waders in the water to test hypotheses in the field using scientifically-designed monitoring. Good data collection is essential to assess fishery status and inform effective management of Alberta’s fisheries.

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Michael and colleague Laura MacPherson seining for fish on Whitemud Creek using a fishing net called seine.

Heartfelt successes

The hard work has paid off in many ways.

“In the past decades, fishing in the North Saskatchewan River was so poor that anglers were mocked,” says Michael. “Now, with good water quality and science-based, effective fishing regulations, restored fisheries for walleye, goldeye, mooneye, northern pike, five species of suckers, and lake sturgeon support tens of thousands of anglers each summer in the Alberta Capital Region.”

For Michael, the restoration of healthy fish populations for traditional use is one of the fisheries team’s most heartfelt successes. “In the 1980’s and 90’s, of the 63 walleye fisheries in the traditional territory of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in the Lac La Biche area, only two fisheries were sustainable while the rest were overfished to the point of collapse.”

With scientific information, good communication and effective trade-offs – such as harvest regulations including catch-and-release fishing and seasonal or spatial fishing closures – designed by engaged stakeholders, recovery happened.

“Fishing is now better than grandparents remember,” says Michael. “By 2018, 20 of those 63 fisheries were fully sustainable, with another 17 close to recovery and Alberta’s Indigenous peoples can once again celebrate this culturally critical connection to the natural world.”

All peoples benefit

Changing the culture through actual successes on the water and ground takes effort and time. “It was decades of work and I tell my people that,” Michael says. “Change is difficult. The benefits, however, have been overwhelmingly worth it.”

“Knowing that kids are growing up in an environment where fishing and fish are part of their culture. Knowing that urban aboriginal youth are catching fish and urban seniors are watching fish spawn at the sweat lodge at Whitemud Creek – right in the city. That’s why we should care,” Michael says.

And while huge strides have been made and many lakes have recovered or are on the way to recovery, there is still a lot of work to be done, for example, recovering native trouts in the eastern slopes of Alberta. Michael is hopeful.

“Looking at my students who talk R-code, seeing them become adjunct professors themselves and seeing them training even younger people gives me huge hope. There’s a much more heartfelt desire amongst the younger biologists for Indigenous rights, for restoration, for reconciliation and it’s not that the policy says you must do this, it’s heartfelt.”

Michael and his team would also like to be more engaged with the public.

“Please stay tuned, please contact your local biologist. When you read the fishing regulation or hear us talk about closing fishing in an area, don’t just immediately come to a simple conclusion – sometimes the problem is more complex than it seems. But also understand that we’re going to make mistakes. We would really like to be much more engaged.”

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Michael and colleague from Parks Canada sampling Westslope Cutthroat Trout along tributary to Bow River. Westslope Cutthroat Trout are listed as Threatened under the Alberta Wildlife Act and the federal Species at Risk Act in Alberta.

Crossing the stage for Canada

Following his late mentor’s advice, Michael will travel to Reno, Nevada, to cross the stage to collect his Award of Excellence from the Fisheries Management Section of the American Fisheries Society on September 30, 2019. The ceremony takes place at one of the largest gatherings of fish and wildlife professionals – the first-ever joint annual conference of the American Fisheries Society and The Wildlife Society.

“My mentor Joe Nelson berated me: so few Canadians get these international awards, next time, you get an award, you’ll stand on that stage because you’re there for Canada,” Michael grins. “My hope is that this award will be used as a small box on which Alberta’s biological science family can stand to highlight the difficult changes, challenges and ultimate benefits of Alberta’s fisheries science success stories. Science!”

His advice to younger colleagues: “We’re in it for the long game. Don’t get caught up in the crisis of the moment. Remember we’re trying to restore these populations for the next seven generations.”

Playing by the rules; responsible pet ownership is a game changer

Responsible pet ownership is the name of the game when purchasing a new pet (or even a plant), and invasive species are the bad guys. Habitat, food and lifestyle are essential to know, but now you need to make sure your new pet isn’t trying to cheat the game by disguising themselves as an invasive species. Thankfully, the aquatic invasive species (AIS) team are no newbies when it comes to playing this game!

Just last December, a Fort McMurray woman purchased a pair of incorrectly identified turtles advertised on social media in Gibbons. After she brought home what she thought were four-month-old Sawback turtles, it was discovered that they were actually map turtles (Genus Graptemys), an invasive species in Alberta. This species is listed in the Wildlife Regulation as well as the Communicable Diseases Regulation (Alberta Health Ministry) as they can carry salmonella bacteria which can result in fever or diarrhea, sometimes even death to humans. It is illegal to buy, sell or own map turtles in Alberta.

Map Turtle

Its not just misidentification of species that can cause issues for single players in this game, sometimes stores receive the wrong species to sell! This summer, the AIS team discovered two prohibited species under the Fisheries (Alberta) Act – Fanwort and Oriental Weather Loach – being sold at a large pet store chain. The Oriental Weather Loach was for sale under its alternate name Dojo Loach, and the Fanwort was listed as a Green Cabomba plant. If you’ve purchased either of these two species, call the AIS Hotline at 1-855-336-BOAT (2628).

Whether you’re on the winning streak of pet ownership or just learning the rules, it’s important to be the game changer in this world full of players!

Hot gaming tips:

  1. Don’t be a noob! Before buying an aquatic pet, plant or invertebrate, doing a quick google search for the scientific name of the species can help you understand if the species is prohibited. A great place to start is Alberta’s prohibited species list.
  2. When it’s game over, take appropriate measures to protect the environment.
    • If you don’t want your pet anymore… Don’t let it loose! Many aquarium plants, fish and pets we purchase are not native to our ecosystem and if released, can cause harm to the environment. Donate your unwanted pet to a friend or return it to the pet store.
    • When the sad day comes that your pet dies, instead of flushing it down the toilet, consider burying it or throwing it in the garbage. Fish can carry foreign diseases and parasites that could spread through our water systems and affect native species.
  3. Level up and become a game master! Report aquatic invasive species to the aquatic invasive species hotline at 1-855-336-BOAT (2628). Find out more about aquatic invasive species.

Fill out Fisheries and Oceans Canada survey on aquariums to help them gain a better understanding of the use and movement of aquatic plants and animals associated with the aquarium trade in Canada.

Hide and go zoo?!

Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) can run, but they most certainly can’t hide – especially with all the help we receive from our partners and concerned citizens who are always reporting suspicious species! This spring, one AIS was found and luckily, quickly lost this round of hide-and-go-seek.

You may be wondering, zoo is the culprit here? Yellow floating heart, that’s who! On
May 23rd, 2019, the Integrated Pest Management team from the City of Edmonton contacted the AIS team to report a weed issue in a moat adjacent to the lemur enclosure at the Edmonton Valley Zoo. The AIS Specialist confirmed on May 27th that the plant was the Yellow Floating Heart 2prohibited species, Nymphoides peltata or yellow floating heart. This perennial species is native to Asia and Europe, and is a serious ecological threat to fish and their habitat by creating dense mats on the water’s surface, which crowd out native plants and reduce oxygen levels.

 

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Yellow Floating Heart roots in the soil and sends up leaves to float on the water surface. Flowers are bright yellow and have 5 petals. (Photo credit: Nicole Kimmel)

Fortunately, the moat system in the zoo is isolated and yellow floating heart has only been found in this one location. Unfortunately, the moat has been drained into a nearby storm drain that is connected to the North Saskatchewan River. This was concerning as yellow floating heart spreads in many ways: seed, rhizomes (below ground runners), stolons (above ground runners) and basically, through any fragments of the plant. The river is now under surveillance. Since this species is particularly challenging to eradicate, this weed issue quickly turned into an emergency response. On June 12th, the AIS team joined Edmonton Valley Zoo staff in hand removal of this plant. Water was hydro-vacuumed out of the moat and disposed of at hazardous injection well sites to ensure any possible fragments were not spread.

 

Yellow floating heart - Photo Credit Tanya Rushcall

AIS and Edmonton Valley Zoo staff hand removing all plants and fragments of yellow floating heart from the moat (Photo credits – Tanya Rushcall & Nicole Kimmel).

AIS and Edmonton Valley Zoo staff have been monitoring the site and will continue to dYellow Floating Hearto so for two additional years to guarantee yellow floating heart is no longer hiding in the shallows of the lemur moat! Although, an ASERT response was initiated, it’s thanks to reports like these that help us catch those AIS that hide and fuel us to seek immediate reactions. No more, “you’re it” but instead “you’re zoo out of here!”

 

How can you help?

  1. Don’t let it loose! Never release unwanted aquarium species – it’s illegal, unfair to native species and harmful to the environment.
  2. Report what you see! Call the AIS hotline at 1-855-336-BOAT (2628) or use the EDDMapS Alberta.
  3. Learn to identify Alberta’s 52 prohibited aquatic invasive species using our pocket guide.
  4. Fill out Fisheries and Oceans Canada survey on water gardens to help them gain a better understanding of the use and movement of aquatic plants.

Fish you were (NOT) here

There’s something fishy going on… and thankfully a few concerned citizens “caught” it!

On July 10th 2019, the Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Hotline received a report of numerous dead fish in the Elbow River, just outside of Bragg Creek. Fish biologists confirmed on July 11th that the fish were tilapia. This warm-water species is native to Africa and the Middle East, and pose immense risks to native fish species by creating turbid waters and outcompeting them for food and space.

Tilapia 2 - Credit Travis Shield1

Photo credit: Travis Shield

Unfortunately for the tilapia, their warm-water loving trait likely lead to their demise – depending on the species, they can die from temperatures ranging from 7 to 17°C. Although, the Elbow River was 11.7°C on July 11th, the thermal shock from their tank environment to the Elbow River was enough to o-fish-ally end this scare. Tilapia’s intolerance for low water temperatures makes their establishment in the Elbow River highly unlikely, as temperatures between 0°C to 4°C are common in winter months. Even though the tilapia did not survive, any parasites or diseases that they may or may not have been carrying have the potential to affect native and stocked fish populations.

So how did these fish get into the Elbow River? Even if they end up on your dinner plate, they certainly do not belong in our rivers and streams! Tilapia have been introduced around the world as a food source, as they are easy to grow and are mild-flavored. There are several licensed aquaculture facilities in the Calgary area, where the fish could have been deliberately dumped from. Facilities have been contacted regarding this fish introduction, as the release of fish into Alberta waters is illegal and prohibited under the Fisheries (Alberta) Act.

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Photo credit: Paul Christensen

Environment and Parks staff will continue to scale the Elbow and Bow Rivers to ensure the tilapia aren’t lured into any warm spots, where wastewater treatment plants discharge their water. You too can help us by keeping your eyes peeled while you’re fishing, floating or hiking in the area!

How can you help?

  1. Don’t let it loose! Never release unwanted aquarium species – it’s illegal, unfair to the fish and harmful to the environment.
  2. Report what you see! Call the AIS hotline at 1-855-336-BOAT (2628) or use the EDDMaps Alberta app.
  3. Learn to identify Alberta’s 52 prohibited aquatic invasive species using our pocket guide.

4. Fill out Fisheries and Oceans Canada survey on live seafood to help them gain a better understanding of the use and movement of commercially available live seafood.

The “crab-divating” story of illegal species transport

Alberta is always on the lookout for aquatic invasive species (AIS), specifically the 52 species listed as prohibited on the Fisheries (Alberta) Act. Sometimes, however, we get very interesting species that have the potential to get us in hot water, if they went undetected! Over the years, we have flushed out as many invasive species as we can and this month we will be elaborating on a few Aquatic Anomalies that have tried their luck at entering Alberta waters.

What wears mittens, enjoys long walks on the beach and has eight legs? The answer is… Chinese Mitten Crabs! At less than 10 cm in size, they may not seem like a big deal but these little crustaceans pack a big pinch by wreaking havoc both on the environment and human health. Importing these crabs into Canada alive is illegal without a license but recently, people have been testing the waters.

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Photo credit: Canadian Food Inspection Agency

On October 24th, 2018 the Canadian Border Services Association (CBSA) seized a shipment destined for a Calgary residence that was declared as “TV Lights”. This ill-marked Styrofoam box contained 21 kg of very real, very live Chinese Mitten Crabs. These greenish-brown crawlers are best known for their two claws with white tips and thick furry hair that resemble mittens. This species is native to East Asia and is considered a delicacy in Asian cuisine.

The shipment seized at the Calgary International Airport came from Hong Kong. Additionally, the importer did not have a fish import license, which is mandatory for anyone that wishes to import live fish or fish products. When CBSA finds an illegal species, they often connect with other government agencies more specialized in dealing with the species in question. In this situation, CBSA contacted both the Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) program staff and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The package was detained and the case was handed over to the CFIA, where the crabs were euthanized.

Luckily, this invasive species was detected and stopped, as Chinese Mitten Crabs can threaten aquatic ecosystems by eating fish eggs and damaging fish habitat through their burrowing activities. In Alberta, the extent of environmental threats was deemed low because the crabs were unlikely to survive, if released. However, this still left a human health concern. Chinese Mitten Crabs act as an intermediate host for the oriental lung fluke, a parasite that can be passed to humans who consume it raw.

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Photo credit: Canadian Food Inspection Agency

The CBSA doesn’t just help in the fight against invasive species at the airport, they also collaborate with AIS program staff at land borders. In 2017, the province worked with CBSA to develop a border notification system to keep AIS staff informed when a boat passed the border outside of watercraft inspection station operating hours. Over 900 boats have been reported to date that could have otherwise been missed without this partnership. Collaboration is crucial to protect Alberta’s environment and ecosystems and we hope that you can continue to help us claw through the threat of aquatic invasive species by:

Alberta’s water scientists team up with EPCOR on 885 kilometer quest for improved data collection along the North Saskatchewan River

By Jeannine Goehing, Office of the Chief Scientist
August 2019

Have you ever noticed the changing colors of the water in the North Saskatchewan River – from clear teal to murky brown? Looking over the river from his ninth floor office in downtown Edmonton, Dr. Craig Emmerton points out that, under certain conditions, the river’s color reveals its glacial origin. “Under low-flow conditions, the river’s mountain water signature with its glacial fine sediment influenced teal color is visible in Edmonton – some 400 kilometers away from the Rocky Mountains,” he says. In contrast, high-flow conditions during spring-melt and storm events bring about the murky appearance, the river’s water and coarser sediment signature from lower elevation landscapeEPCOR1s downstream of the mountains, he explains.

With a total length of 1,287 kilometers, the North Saskatchewan River is Canada’s 12th longest river, discharging an average 210 cubic meters of water, the equivalent of 1,500 bathtubs, every second in Edmonton, and providing drinking water for over 800,000 people in the Edmonton Capital Region alone.

With a common goal of protecting the source of our drinking water supply, Alberta Environment and Parks, EPCOR, the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance and the City of Edmonton, have teamed up on a four-year long project to improve our knowledge of the health and water quality of the North Saskatchewan River.

 Journey through Alberta

“One of the beauties for me of the North Saskatchewan River is the transition from its pristine headwaters in the mountains through agriculturally-dominated areas all the way to the grasslands along the Saskatchewan border,” says project lead Dr. Cristina Buendia-Fores, Aquatic Scientist with the Environmental Monitoring and Science Division at Alberta Environment and Parks. “It seems like a totally different river.”

Originating from the Saskatchewan Glacier in Banff National Park and fed year-round by snowmelt, rain events and glacial meltwater from the Rocky Mountains, the North Saskatchewan River picks up speed and volume on its way through the eastern slopes of the Rockies. Moving east, it first winds its way through steeply sloping, then rolling hills of the Foothills Region. From there, it leisurely continues downstream in a well-defined valley through Alberta’s Parkland, where it is an essential water source for municipal, industrial and agricultural users.

Along its 885 kilometer long journey through Alberta, the North Saskatchewan River flows through five distinct natural regions, six rural counties and one of Alberta’s largest populated watersheds, the Edmonton Capital Region. On its way towards the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, the river passes through prairies before joining its southern EPCOR2namesake – the South Saskatchewan River. Final destination: Hudson Bay.

Along this journey, numerous tributaries –– smaller freshwater streams that flow into the larger river (the mainstem) –– feed into the North Saskatchewan River for a total length of 3,600 kilometers. It’s these tributaries, and their effects on the water quality and quantity of the mainstem, that are drawing the research team’s full attention.

 Quest for improved data

The water quality of the North Saskatchewan River and its tributaries reflects the combined effects of human activities, including industry, agriculture and urban centers, and natural processes, such as changes in precipitation patterns or the erosion of different soils and geological material. For example, much of the mainstem and tributaries upstream of Edmonton contain easily erodible silts and clays that can cause the murky (turbid) appearance of the river during high-flow periods. This in turn affects the water treatment process EPCOR uses to ensure clean and healthy drinking water to Albertans.

Historically, water quality and quantity data collection has primarily focused on the mainstem of the North Saskatchewan River and a few of its mid-reach tributaries. “The problem is that we don’t fully understand the source, transport and fate of contaminants, or which tributaries are the main drivers of the patterns observed in the mainstem,” Cristina explains.

The solution: turning the spotlight on major tributaries along the entire length of the river basin, including the western headwater streams. The advantages of collecting data from representative tributaries are many. “Monitoring tributaries will improve our knowledge of source water supplies and contaminant sources. These data will help us target management actions to specific, disturbed tributaries that negatively impact water quality of the mainstem or protect those areas less impaired by human activities,” Cristina continues.

Sampling underway

Originally from Spain, a country facing long-lasting water scarcity problems, Cristina has always been fascinated with river ecosystems and water resource management. She studied sediment and water management in regulated rivers before serving as Technical Advisor on the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance. She then joined the four-year partnership between EPCOR and the Government of Alberta as project lead under the direction of Dr. John Orwin, Executive Director at Alberta Environment and Parks, who designed the monitoring program.

Project co-lead Craig joined Alberta Environment and Parks as Watershed Scientist after spending over 15 years studying lakes and rivers across Canada, from one of the world’s EPCOR3largest arctic marine deltas –– the Mackenzie Delta –– to the world’s largest high arctic lake.

Under their joint leadership, a team of four technicians conducts sampling at 19 representative tributaries and four mainstem locations. Since November 2018, the team has installed hydrometric stations –– five by five feet-sized shacks that are solar-powered and equipped with sensors –– to collect water quality and quantity data in near-real time. The team also repeatedly dips bottles, literally, at the same locations to analyze major water quality parameters, including minerals, nutrients, metals and dissolved organic matter – a parameter that influences water color and has financial implications for water treatment processes.

Additional studies will reveal how aquatic species are faring and provide information on the overall health of the aquatic ecosystem. These studies look at a range of indicators, from sediment and water quality, to the physical condition of the river and the state of biological communities.

Path towards improved water quality

For Cristina, the path towards improved water quality is clear.

“We need science and monitoring to understand what is driving water quality and water quantity and to support management,” she says.

Although research takes time and resources, the benefits are many. Ultimately, the long-term monitoring initiative of the North Saskatchewan River and its major tributaries will inform decision makers about risks to the mainstem and help maintain high source water quality for Albertans.

“Identifying areas that need stabilization or riparian rehabilitation and making actual improvements on the ground could ultimately be the most rewarding part of this program,” Craig adds.

For him, this project presents an exciting opportunity to work on another great Canadian waterway, “It’s amazing to see the diversity of the rivers and lakes across this province and country and I’m excited to see more parts of the North Saskatchewan River over the next four years.”

 Access to near real-time data

Near real-time river flow data from this project can be viewed and downloaded on the Alberta River Basins website.

Indigenous Lake Monitoring Program: Learning and working together with Indigenous communities to monitor lakes across Alberta

“Water is essential to our culture, which is why our people always camped by the water. Without the land and water, there is no people”, Troy Stuart, Lands Manager, Bigstone Cree Nation.

Water is of cultural and spiritual importance to Indigenous peoples and is seen as the interconnection among all living beings.

Indigenous communities across the province have questions and concerns about their local water bodies. What are the impacts of industrial and recreational uses on lakes? Is it safe to eat the fish and drink the water? “It is in the best interest of our people now and the people of the future to secure our water,” Troy Stuart, Bigstone Cree Nation.

To tackle questions on water quality and fish health, Bigstone Cree Nation and Alberta Environment and Parks’ Environmental Monitoring and Science Division (EMSD) worked together to monitor the North Wabasca Lake. “The collaboration with Bigstone Cree Nation is an exciting and new opportunity within our Provincial Lake Monitoring Program to address concerns of indigenous communities while building local capacity for collecting scientifically credible lake monitoring data,” says Dr. Ron Zurawell, Lake Ecosystem Scientist with EMSD.

Best available knowledge: Indigenous knowledge meets western science

The pilot project saw community members and government scientists jointly sampling, analyzing and reporting on the condition of North Wabasca Lake, located 300 km north of Edmonton. Learning from each other was key to the success of this project. “Incorporating local knowledge provided by Bigstone Cree Nation was critical to understanding potential influencing features of the lake basin and assisted in sampling site selection,” says Dr. Ron Zurawell of EMSD.

Joint sampling and sharing of technology also helped the community technologist develop a deeper understanding of and trust in the scientific data. “I think the project is very successful. When the data is gathered and shared with the community, we know that our drinking water condition and fish habitat is normal. Now that I have participated in the project I am actually confident about the water,” Gilmen Cardinal, Bigstone Cree Nation.

Gilmen Cardinal Bigstone Cree Nation conducting lake water sampling

Gilmen Cardinal, Bigstone Cree Nation, conducting lake water sampling on North Wabasca Lake. Source: Zoey Wang 

Shared journey

Mutual interests were key drivers for the launch of the Indigenous Lake Monitoring Program that is filling scientific data gaps and addressing community questions on water quality and fish health. “It’s a shared journey and takes time, passion and commitment to do things right,” says Zoey Wang, Community Monitoring Program Coordinator with EMSD. Success of the shared journey is grounded in respect for cultural and scientific protocols, open and timely communication and support from government and community leadership.

What’s next?

Bigstone Cree Nation is the first of four Indigenous communities participating in the Indigenous Lake Monitoring Program. The program has expanded to six other lakes in 2017 and 2018 with participation from Whitefish Lake First Nation, Dene Tha’ First Nation and Cold Lake First Nations, in addition to Bigstone Cree Nation.

Working with participating Indigenous communities, EMSD will report on the water quality of lakes monitored in 2017 and 2018, and evaluate the Indigenous Lake Monitoring Program to guide a long-term monitoring program based on the respectful braiding of Indigenous and scientific knowledge systems.

Learn more