Reflecting on the Health of Canada’s Waters: Bugs

At WWF-Canada, we’re investigating the health of all water in Canada by 2017 and we’re 25 per cent of the way there. We base our analyses on four major metrics of water health: water flow, water quality, fish, and bugs. In earlier blogs this month, we’ve talked about the overall trends in water health and in the water flow metric. Today we’ll look at what we mean when we say “bugs” and why it’s important to water health?

Liard River and Mackenzie River confluence, Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories, Canada. The Liard River generated a score of 'very good'. © Peter Ewins / WWF-Canada
Liard River and Mackenzie River confluence, Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories, Canada. Bug communities were observed to be good or better for three of the sub-watersheds in the Liard, however monitoring data did not meet the minimum requirements for analysis in the Central Liard and Lower Liard sub-watersheds. © Peter Ewins / WWF-Canada

Bugs refer to what we call ‘benthic macro-invertebrates’, which can be flies, beetles, aquatic worms, snails, leeches and others that live in the rivers. These bug communities are highly sensitive to factors that impact water health. So knowing which species are present, and which aren’t, is a good way to investigate the overall health of the system.
After assessing one quarter of Canada’s watershed areas, what do we know about the bugs in our water systems?
The most common trend is that there isn’t enough bug data available to give the rivers a score. In fact, of all the indicators we investigate, there is the least data available for bugs. This is likely because monitoring benthic communities – living in or on the bottom sediments of rivers – is time consuming, expensive, and requires a lot of expertise and training. Also, some types of monitoring are mandatory, but monitoring benthic macro-invertebrates is not.
But that doesn’t mean there are no reasons for optimism. Of the seven watersheds that had enough data to generate a score, five of them scored good or better.
At the local scale, groups are leading the charge to increase monitoring efforts. For example, one of our Loblaw Water Fund projects, led by Wildsight and Living Lakes, is using the Canadian Biological Monitoring Network (CABIN) protocol to monitor the health of the Flathead River ecosystem. CABIN is a program maintained by Environment Canada that provides a standard protocol to facilitate consistent and comparable reporting among different water monitoring groups. Participants undergo training to ensure they are maintaining the CABIN data standard. The data they collect is uploaded into a central database and can be accessed by other organizations, such as WWF-Canada. It is a great example of interagency cooperation. As new technologies emerge, benthic monitoring will become easier and less expensive, leading to more data available in centralized databases.
Any scientist knows that no result is still a result. Now we know that there is a lack of available bug data. By bringing attention to this need, we hope to encourage more monitoring and an increase in accessible bug data. When we understand the health of Canada’s water, we can work to protect it today and for generations to come.