Faster, better freshwater monitoring through new citizen-scientist program | WWF-Canada

Faster, better freshwater monitoring through new citizen-scientist program

Posted on 25 September 2017
Northern leopard frog
© Paul Reeves Photography
OTTAWA, Sept. 25, 2017 – A new national community-based freshwater monitoring program using environmental DNA technology to provide the data necessary to help reverse the decline of freshwater wildlife is being launched today by WWF-Canada.
Working with partners, WWF-Canada will improve watershed management and wildlife protection by using local volunteers to supply credible and timely information for data-deficient watersheds. This program addresses recent revelations in the Watershed Reports and Living Planet Report Canada, which found that data deficiency on freshwater ecosystems is preventing evidence-based freshwater management.
WWF-Canada is working with Living Lakes Canada and researchers at the University of Guelph, along with scientific and technical support from Environment and Climate Change Canada, to launch the program in Ottawa and B.C.’s Sunshine Coast this fall before expanding in spring of 2018 to other data-deficient watersheds.
Why this data is necessary
WWF-Canada’s Watershed Reports found all of Canada’s watersheds are under stress from human activities, but data deficiency on key indicators such as benthic invertebrates prevents us from knowing the impact of those stressors on freshwater health in 15 of 25 watersheds. (Benthic invertebrates are a strong indicator of water quality since the small organisms are highly sensitive to pollutants and other changes that impact aquatic ecosystem health.) 
Without data, governments and communities are not positioned to make evidence-based decisions about freshwater management, which impacts wildlife and communities.
Current wildlife and habitat management practices are not working. WWF-Canada’s Living Planet Report Canada found that half of our monitored vertebrate species are in decline. And of those, the decline on average is 83 per cent since 1970.
Freshwater ecosystems are among the least well studied in Canada, yet are expected (along with the Arctic overall) to be hit hardest by climate change.
Why community based monitoring?
Canada’s geographical diversity and low density makes comprehensive monitoring networks a challenge to maintain. Community-based monitoring programs are far more nimble, with the potential for more comprehensive reach.
Why environmental DNA (eDNA)?
eDNA technology compares sample genetic material collected in the water to a global DNA barcode library to identify species.
Under this new program, eDNA will be used to identify benthic invertebrates such as flies, beetles and snails to a much greater degree of specificity than traditional analysis, to better understand freshwater health.
eDNA analysis is easier, faster and more accurate than traditional manual analysis of benthic invertebrates, ensuring data gaps can be filled comparatively quickly and conclusions made about watershed health in a more timely and cost-effective manner.
Catherine McKenna, minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada, says: 
“The world is already seeing the effects of climate change and pollution, and Canada continues to act to ensure the health of its waterways. I’m proud of the work our government scientists are already doing to assess aquatic ecosystem health across the country. We are lending our scientific and technical expertise to support the WWF-Canada initiative and ensure cleaner rivers and lakes for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren.”
David Miller, president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund Canada, says:
“We need more information to better understand how to reverse the decline of wildlife across Canada.  WWF-Canada is bringing partners together to collect missing data in rivers and lakes that will provide a more complete picture of where we need take action to ensure healthy freshwater ecosystems that support wildlife and human communities too.”
Kat Hartwig, executive director of Living Lakes Canada, says:
"We are very excited at the prospects of this eDNA development for our water quality monitoring. It means that our sample results will be more accurate and less expensive to process and analyze, which means that it will be more user friendly and accessible for community-based water-monitoring groups and volunteers. This will be a significant step forward to establish a collective understanding of water health our precious and magnificent Canadian watersheds.”
Dr. Mehrdad Hajibabaei, associate professor at the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics and Department of Integrative Biology at University of Guelph, says: 
 “Over the last decade, we have used advanced genomics and computational technologies to lead the development of a wholly new identification system for biodiversity. This eDNA metabarcoding approach has been applied in a number of research projects in collaboration with stakeholders – especially from Environment and Climate Change Canada. I am very delighted to operationalize our eDNA approach in real-world environmental assessment of some of our most valuable watersheds across Canada.”
About World Wildlife Fund Canada
WWF-Canada creates solutions to the environmental challenges that matter most for Canadians. We work in places that are unique and ecologically important, so that nature, wildlife and people thrive together. Because we are all wildlife. For more information, visit
For further information, please contact:
Rebecca Spring, communications specialist, WWF-Canada,, +1 647-338-6274
Northern leopard frog
© Paul Reeves Photography Enlarge