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.
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 Some trend records are out of date due to cuts to environmental monitoring since the 1990s.3, 6 Some new initiatives started in the past decade will provide trend information for future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
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
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.
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
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.
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:
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+
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|