Ontario tables the "Invasive Species Act": What is it, and what role should natural history museums play?

Posted: February 27, 2014 - 10:13 , by ROM
Photo of the ROM's Great Lakes display, featuring a Bald eagle, a Beaver, a Snapping turtle, and various other species

By Dave Ireland, Managing Director, ROM Biodiversity

The Ontario Minister of Natural Resources, David Orazietti, joined by the Ontario Biodiversity Council, which includes representation from the ROM, introduced a new piece of legislation yesterday: the Invasive Species Act.  This is unprecedented in Canada, and is a bold step by the Province.  The details of the Act will circulate to the public via the Environmental Registry over a 45 day period, but generally it provides regulatory powers to the Province, and a toolkit of resources, to better manage, report and prosecute human activities related to the transmission of non-native species.

Invasive species are plants, animals and fungi that are introduced to areas outside of their natural range (past and present) that flourish in the new environment and outcompete and degrade native biodiversity.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) ranks invasive species as the second leading cause of biodiversity loss on the planet.  Think Cane toads in Australia, or Burmese pythons in Florida.  The economic impact of invasive species is extraordinary: Ontario spends between $75-91 million annually on the management of one species, the Zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha).  There are currently over 180 invasive species in the Great Lakes basin alone.

The Act was introduced, in part, because of the frightening reality that the Silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix), one of the Asian carps native to China and northeast Asia, is about to colonize the Great Lakes.  This species was intentionally introduced to the southern United States in the 1970s to control algal overgrowth in sewage treatment ponds and aquaculture facilities. It promptly escaped, reproduced, and in 2009 had successfully colonized the entire Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River watersheds. It is on the doorstep of Lake Michigan.  The cost, both economically and environmentally, of the successful colonization of the Silver carp in the Great Lakes will dwarf the costs associated with the Zebra mussel.

So, what does this have to do with natural history museums and their scientists? Are we simply a resource of baseline data (e.g. what was here before), and perhaps a point of contact for proper identification of emerging invasive species? Or, can we provide relevant and proactive support to the Province on this critical issue?

Natural history museums are public spaces, open for public learning and public dialogue. We are a trusted source for information on the natural world, and we help people engage with nature and with each other.  No longer can we present nature in static ways and expect our audience to remain engaged – there are too many other sources of information out there.  No longer can we remain completely focused on our specific research agendas – we are not universities. 

The Invasive Species Act requires help: the public and industry will have questions about the impact of the Act on them; we need to help them understand the enormity of the situation, and we all must commit to the moral ethic to protect what sustains us. Beyond their specific research interests, our scientists can help in three ways:

  1. EDUCATE. Research scientists study a particular topic, often somewhat narrow in focus. This is a needed approach to good research; as you can imagine, it takes a significant amount of time and energy to fully understand and report on the complexities and novelties of Nature. However, through this process, scientists become knowledgeable, perhaps even very knowledgeable, on the taxon they study.  For example, an invertebrate zoology curator who studies corals and jellyfish is still an excellent source to discuss the generalities of Rusty crayfish or Zebra mussel in the Great Lakes.  The public will respect these voices.
  2. SHARE PARTNERS. Research scientists meet extraordinary people through their work, from across the planet.  These networks become active incubators for new work and are also sounding boards for bogus work.  Extending partners to our publics is an easy and efficient mechanism to increase our capacity to teach content that we otherwise wouldn’t.  For example, non-governmental organizations often focus on the story-telling component of an issue, and are very effective communicators.  Bring these partners into the fold and allow them the platform to reach our audience.
  3. ADVOCATE. No longer should we be concerned that the term “advocacy” equates to partisanship, especially when we are advocating for proposed legislation that all three major political parties endorse.  A recent tweet that went somewhat viral among a science communication group on Twitter stated: “the biggest threat to academic freedom comes from the reluctance of academics to say anything controversial at all”.  Indeed, we are at an environmental crossroads on planet Earth, and there has never been a more important time for our most learned and respected nature scholars to step up and speak.