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September 6, 2016

Using SARA to Save Species

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Beluga Whale underwater.


Last week, The Honourable Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, announced that the Government of Canada is taking action to protect 12 aquatic species. The list of species proposed for listing under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) include such iconic marine animals as the leatherback sea turtle, harbour seal and beluga whale. The announcement from Minister LeBlanc describes this decision as being based on assessments by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and other scientific advice. Once the species are formally listed under SARA, a plan will be developed to help recover these populations.

This announcement is a welcome step forward, and long overdue to protect species in Canada’s oceans. Since SARA was established in 2002, only 12 species of marine or anadromous fish have been listed – only one of which was previously targeted as a commercial species (Atlantic salmon).

Oceana Canada’s report on the state of Canada’s fisheries, released earlier this year, highlights that twenty-eight marine fish species assessed as endangered, threatened or of special concern have either been denied listing under SARA or have been waiting as long as 14 years for a decision.

SARA is an important tool for protecting our oceans, one we have not, to date, used to its full extent. Once listed under SARA, the government is legally required to develop a recovery strategy and action plan. The importance of listing a species under SARA, therefore, means that it is the legal mechanism whereby recovery of ocean species is mandated. The use of SARA to protect marine species, particularly those that are commercially fished, has been inadequate. For those species that are commercially fished, the recommendation of the Minister is invariably not to list the species under the Act, pointing to socio-economic concerns. In other cases, using an interpretation of the Act that creates a loophole, the Minister simply never forwards the COSEWIC recommendation for a species to the Governor in Council (e.g., the Cabinet), therefore never triggering the timelines included in SARA, which allows the government to avoid making any decision at all, sometimes for a decade or more – for instance, the government has still not made a decision on whether to list porbeagle sharks, which are still awaiting a decision 12 years after being assessed by COSEWIC as endangered.

Oceana Canada applauds Minister LeBlanc’s commitment to protecting species and hopes that this announcement will be followed quickly by the initiation of recovery plans. This is an important first step in prioritizing the protection of Canada’s oceans, and more work is needed.

It is important to note that as part of this announcement, Minister LeBlanc has recommended against listing Atlantic Bluefin tuna under SARA, which had been assessed by COSEWIC as endangered, once again citing socio-economic reasons. It’s critical that Fisheries and Oceans Canada now implement sufficient alternative measures under the Fisheries Act to recover this species and better protect them from overfishing.

Oceana Canada will continue to advocate for the protection of marine species. You can show your support by sharing this article and raising awareness about the importance of implementing SARA to protect Canada’s oceans and the incredible species that call this ecosystem home.