A newly published study says alien plants and animals are already invading Canada through doors opened by climate change, and research and policy lag far behind.
Neither Ottawa nor any of the provinces are looking at the interaction between global warming and invasive species with a view to preventing further harm to the economy, says the report published Thursday in the journal Environmental Reviews.
"We need to be focusing on working out what species are potential threats under climate change and directing more research toward predicting where they're going to be," said Andrea Smith, a biologist at York University in Toronto.
"(We should be) directing our resources to those areas so that we have monitoring programs in place and early detection and rapid response programs in place so we can prevent them from getting in to Canada and, if they do get into Canada, from establishing and spreading."
Smith examined and summarized what is already known about the interaction between climate change and the entry of non-native species into Canada. The answer is, not much.
After searching decades worth of published scientific papers, she found only a few dozen that specifically addressed how new species are taking advantage of environmental change in Canada.
That's despite the fact that numerous studies have concluded that climate change and other factors such as increased global trade will increase the rate of such "biological invasions."
Some climate-change induced invasions are already causing problems.
The expansion of the mountain pine beetle has damaged thousands of hectares of forest in British Columbia and Alberta. Deer ticks are spreading throughout Canada, bringing debilitating Lyme disease with them. The smallmouth bass, gypsy moth and pea-like kudzu plant threaten forests and lakes.
One study estimated there are at least 1,500 non-native species already in Canada, although not all have come in because of climate change. The same study estimated the cost of only 16 of those species to be between $13.3 and $34 billion annually to the Canadian economy.
"It's really mind-boggling," said Smith.
"Because it is an emerging, significant threat that climate change is predicted to magnify, I did find it somewhat surprising. Even the ones that are being studied more than others, they're still not being studied very much."
Even the most studied species — the deer tick — only had six papers dealing with its spread under climate change.
"We don't have the background information about what is spreading into Canada and what is spreading within Canada."
Federal regulation on invasive species is divided between the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Natural Resources Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Policy papers from Fisheries and Ocean and the food inspection agency deal with designation and regulation of harmful species. Climate change is not mentioned.
Natural Resources Canada opened a research centre on invasive species in 2009 that focuses on studying harmful insects already present in Canadian forests.
Smith argues Canada needs to start looking ahead rather than reacting.
"It's always a bit of a guessing game," she said. "There's huge uncertainty with invasive species."
But studying common characteristics and considering climate predictions could provide clues to act on, Smith suggested.
"We need to come up with a list of high-risk invasive species and direct our policy accordingly."
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the study was released by the federal government, but that is incorrect.