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National Fish Contaminants Monitoring and Surveillance Program

Program Overview

Environment Canada scientists preparing the benthic sled to collect organisms such as Diporeia hoyi and Mysis diluviana | © EC Photo: Michael Keir
Environment Canada scientists preparing the benthic sled
to collect organisms such as Diporeia hoyi and Mysis diluviana

The Fish Contaminants Monitoring and Surveillance Program (FCMSP) began in 1977. The purpose of the program is to survey collectively, the concentration of contaminants in selected species of fish and other biota with the specific objective of determining environmental trends in contaminant levels and to relate these to sources of such pollution, the effectiveness of remedial actions, and the risk to fish and fish-consuming wildlife in aquatic ecosystems across Canada.

For much of the program’s history, the focus of monitoring activities has been centred in the Canadian waters of the Great Lakes to meet Canada’s obligation under Annex 12 Section 4 of the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA). Activities in the Great Lakes are coordinated with those of a similar program operated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) in U.S. waters to ensure minimal duplication of effort and basin-wide coverage. Together, Environment Canada and the U.S. EPA have been monitoring the concentration and trends of priority pollutants such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the tissues of fishes since 1977. The results are included in reports from the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference (SOLEC) and the Binational Toxics Strategy (BTS).

Map showing fish contaminant monitoring locations in the Great Lakes basin

Map showing fish contaminant monitoring locations in the Great Lakes basin © Environment Canada

In 2006, the program was expanded under Canada’s Chemicals Management Plan (CMP) to include water bodies situated across Canada including the Great Lakes. The CMP aims to improve the degree of protection against hazardous chemicals through implementation of new measures to ensure that chemical substances are managed properly. The FCMSP provides data on the concentrations of contaminants of emerging concern, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), in the environment and their propensity to bioaccumulate to inform risk assessments under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) and from which to assess the effectiveness of regulations aimed at reducing the concentrations of contaminants in the environment. 

Map showing fish contaminant monitoring locations across Canada © Environment Canada

Target Species

Predatory and long-lived species of fish are ideal for contaminant biomonitoring as they accumulate pollutants both from the surrounding water and their prey through processes known to scientists as bioaccumulation and biomagnification. Lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) are an ideal species for contaminant monitoring because they are top predators, long-lived, have high lipid content and are found across Canada. In areas where lake trout do not occur other predatory species such as walleye (Sander vitreus) are targeted instead.

Pollutant levels in top predators provide an indication of the magnitude and spatial extent of environmental contamination but do not provide much information on the routes by which chemicals enter the environment, and the animals that live in it. For this reason, the FCMSP employs a food web based approach in which key components of the aquatic food web are also collected for contaminant analyses. These components include: forage fishes, benthic invertebrates, and plankton.

Changes to food webs, caused either by human impacts, changing climate, or invasive species, can also affect the cycling of contaminants in the environment. By monitoring using a food web approach these effects can be accounted for.

Collection Methods

In the Great Lakes, all sample collection occurs on board the CCGS Kelso. Smaller vessels are used in other bodies of water across Canada. Specimens are collected using the following methods:

  • Top predators – bottom set gill nets
  • Forage fishes – bottom trawl/small mesh gill net
  • Benthos – benthic sled/sediment sampler
  • Plankton – 150-um mesh plankton net

Environment Canada scientists collecting fish on the Lake Ontario | © EC Photo: Daryl McGoldrick
Environment Canada scientists collecting fish on the Lake Ontario

All fish are identified to species, measured, weighed and aged (when possible). All fish are then frozen until they can be processed in the laboratory.

In the lab, large predatory fish (e.g., lake trout) are homogenized whole. Smaller forage fishes (e.g., rainbow smelt) are combined by length, then homogenized whole to form composite samples. A maximum of 20 sub-samples are generated for each individual or composite sample, some of which are sent for chemical analyses and the rest are stored in a specimen bank.

Consistent with the goal of the FCMSP, the use of whole body homogenates provides a measure of total body burden and overall environmental contamination and differentiates the FCMSP from a similar program operated by the Province of Ontario which provides guidance on the consumption of fish by measuring contaminants in the muscle (fillet) only.

Measured Parameters

Environment Canada scientists preparing gill nets used to capture lake trout from the Great Lakes | © EC Photo: Daryl McGoldrick
Environment Canada scientists preparing gill nets used
to capture lake trout from the Great Lakes

Specific measures and chemical analyses performed by the FCMSP vary dependant on current priorities. Following are some of the parameters measured in recent years:

Biophysical Parameters

  • Weight, length, sex, age, percent lipid

Organochlorine Compounds

  • α-chlordane, γ-chlordane, dieldrin, p,p'-DDE, o,p'-DDT, p,p'-DDD, heptachlor epoxide, hexachlorobenzene, lindane, mirex, total polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

Trace Metals

  • Aluminum, antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, bismuth, caesium, chromium, cobalt, copper, gallium, iron, lanthanum, lead, lithium, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, rubidium, selenium, silver, strontium, thallium, tin, uranium, vanadium, zinc

Chemicals of Emerging Concern

Ecological Tracers

  • Stable isotope ratios (δ13C, δ15N)
  • Fatty acid methyl ethers (FAMEs)

Environmental Specimen Bank

A key component of Environment Canada’s FCMSP is the National Aquatic Biological Specimen Bank (NABSB). Sub-samples of all biota collected in our monitoring activities are kept and stored at -80°C for future use.

Recent Publications

Gewurtz, S.B., D.J. McGoldrick, M.G. Clark, M.J. Keir, M.M. Malecki, M. Gledhill, M. Sekela, J. Syrgiannis, M.S. Evans, A. Armellin, J. Pomeroy, J. Waltho, and S.M. Backus. 2011. Status and trends of PBDEs in Canadian fish and implications for long-term monitoring. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. 30(7): 1564-1575.

Gewurtz, S.B., S.M. Backus, S.P. Bhavsar, D.J. McGoldrick, S.R. de Solla, E.W. Murphy. 2011. Contaminant biomonitoring programs in the Great Lakes region: A review of approaches and critical factors. Environmental Reviews. 19:162-184.

Bhavsar, S.P., S.B. Gewurtz, D.J. McGoldrick, M.J. Keir and S.M. Backus. 2010. Changes in mercury levels in great lakes fish between 1970s and 2007. Environmental Science and Technology 44: 3273-3279.

McGoldrick, D.J., M.G. Clark, M.J. Keir, S.M. Backus and M.M. Malecki. 2010. Canada's national aquatic biological specimen bank and database. Journal of Great Lakes Research 36(2): 393-398.

Gewurtz, S.B., R. Lega, P.W. Crozier, D.M. Whittle, L. Fayez, E.J. Reiner, P.A. Helm, C.H. Marvin and G.T. Tomy. 2009. Factors influencing trends of polychlorinated naphthalenes and other dioxin-like compounds in lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) from Lake Ontario, North America (1979-2004). Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 28: 921-930.

Ismail, N., S.B. Gewurtz, K. Pleskach, M. Whittle, P.A. Helm, C.H. Marvin and G.T. Tomy. 2009. Brominated and chlorinated flame retardants in Lake Ontario, Canada, lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) between 1979 and 2004 and possible influences of food-web changes. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 28: 910-920.

Paterson, G., D.M. Whittle, K.G. Drouillard and G.D. Haffner. 2009. Declining lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) energy density: are there too many salmonid predators in the Great Lakes? Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 66: 919-932.


All biological, physical and chemical data generated by the FCMSP are maintained in a database at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters in Burlington, Ontario.

For more information about the program, sampling methods, or to request data please send your inquiries to:

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