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Alien invasion 

Europeans have been bringing exotic species into Halifax since Napoleon, yet we still know little about them

"All the earthworms in Atlantic Canada were introduced from Europe," Christopher Majka, Nova Scotia Museum's beetle man, tells me. "They have influenced the soil environment but not necessarily in a harmful way. Only a very small percentage of introduced species become invasive."

Majka's words come faster as he recounts the history of non-human newcomers to Atlantic Canada. "This region has by far the largest portion of introduced species."

It's been that way since the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, when Britain sent ships here to collect lumber to build more warships. The westbound ships were weighed down with rocks and dirt---complete with insects, plants and seeds---that were dumped ashore. From here, the living parts of their loads spread throughout North America as railway corridors were developed.

Despite the hype, it's difficult to assess whether invasives---the introduced species that don't blend in but spread rapidly and disrupt local ecosystems---are a growing problem or just an ongoing one. Majka says that the rules have improved---you can no longer take horticultural products into Canada without undergoing quarantine.

But, "there is a great lack of interest in funding biodiversity research at all levels of government," Majka says. "There is no monitoring of what is new and what is here to start with."

We don't know enough about our native species, or species introduced decades or centuries ago, to compare the "natural" state of our ecosystem with how new species might change things. Government's focus is on economic impacts---forestry and agriculture. As a result, Majka feels that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency jumps to conclusions about what is and isn't an invasive species.

Most notably, he isn't convinced that the infamous brown spruce longhorn beetle, which Nova Scotia taxpayers have spent nearly $3 million to contain and eradicate, is an invasive. "In 1999 they assumed it was new but with our large numbers of coniferous trees it could have been here since the 1880s," Majka says. "It was found in new places but that could be because no one had ever bothered to look there before."

The same goes for exotic species in general. We are finding them in new places, sometimes causing ecological problems, but that could be because we're paying more attention.

Richard MacLellan, HRM's sustainable environment manager, has his own critique of the federal approach to invasives. "It's mitigation in specific forest infestations," he says, "without overarching policy. And responsibility is downloaded to municipalities."

He's spent four weeks of the past six months hunting bugs and weeds on a case-by-case basis, detracting from his many other obligations. "With the increasing dry periods and warmer winters Environment Canada predicts, I'm looking for a dramatic increase in incidents," MacLellan says.

To handle all the exotic issues with pesticides would cost the city up to $2 million a year, without counting environmental and health costs. "No other municipality could put a month's work on bugs," he says, "but people are freaking out about this---every district has had an invasive."

Whether the problem is escalating or just getting more attention, it won't be solved with pesticides. MacLellan wants a tri-level government policy based on sound research. His office is seeking a meeting with the province, Dalhousie researchers and the Invasive Species Alliance of Nova Scotia, a coalition of non-profits, academics and civil servants working on invasives. "We need to get out of the traditional silo thinking because this is an issue that hits on health, environment and economics---yet if there's no economic consequence CFIA won't dive into it."

Like Majka, MacLellan thinks the first step is getting a better handle of the extent of the problem, and what, if anything, can be done about it. "We've already seen some good measures, like restrictions on ballast discharges by the shipping industry in harbours."

But beyond hard science and policy, MacLellan is concerned about softer issues like communication and education. "Ultimately education is more important than engineering," he says. "We need to look at educating contractors, landscapers and residents on how to reduce the attractiveness of property to certain species. Good landscaping, with ample trees and buffer vegetation, is good for the land, water and fisheries."

MacLellan hopes to draft a policy identifying HRM's direction on invasives by November.


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