Definitions and Legislation
Global extinction of a species is an irreversible condition—a permanent alteration of our unique world. It cannot be corrected. It cannot be mitigated. Efforts to compensate for extinction are ineffective excuses for a failed responsibility. As a result, the only solution is to prevent species from becoming locally extinct or extirpated.
Under natural conditions, some species are common and some are rare. This can be a result of a variety of factors, e.g., the abundance of food, habitat, mates, and the inherent rates of birth and death for the species. Human activities, however, affect all of these variables. Thus, rareness and extinction are not only a result of human activities, but humans are very good at creating both conditions.
If a species is ‘rare’, it generally means that there are only a small number of individuals in the population or that they only occur in a relatively small area, or both. Rare species are generally also considered at risk of becoming extinct (hereafter referred to as ‘at risk’). Regardless of the abundance of a species, it may also be considered at risk if its population is (a) drastically declining, (b) exposed to severe mortality, or (c) losing an excessive amount of habitat (or a reducing quality of habitat). Furthermore, many agencies (e.g., national governments, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature) use categories of risk to indicate the magnitude of likelihood that a species will become extinct; e.g., in order of increasing likelihood: ‘vulnerable’, ‘threatened’, and ‘endangered’.
There can be many reasons a society becomes interested in avoiding the extinction of a species. For example, the species may be an important natural resource that must be managed to ensure it continues to be plentiful enough to be harvested (and profitable), or there may be a need to demonstrate that a particular human activity is being managed responsibly, such that it is not causing inadvertent damage to living organisms. The species may also have inherent value to society that is not linked to any particular need, service, or measureable benefit.
Many societies have developed laws that are intended to prevent species from becoming extinct. In Canada, several pieces of legislation manage
SARA is often considered a ‘last-ditch’ law because, as a result of its application, it may ultimately protect species that were initially considered under other laws (e.g., Fisheries Act), but that continue to face an increasing likelihood of extinction. Thus, in some cases, this may be due to other acts being implemented inadequately. If a species is granted protection by SARA (i.e., becomes listed under), several laws come into force. Most notably, it becomes illegal to harm, harass, capture, or kill the listed species (s. 32), and it becomes illegal to damage or destroy their ‘residences’ (s. 33), and critical habitats (s. 58). Although these regulations are potentially very effective, attaining this protection and implementing and enforcing these laws under SARA are problematic.
Case Studies and Evaluation
In order to determine if Canada is protecting its marine species at risk, three distinct case studies are presented to provide insight.
Case Study 1
In 2012, the Royal Society of Canada produced an Expert Panel Report that evaluated Canada’s efforts to sustain marine biodiversity.4 Among the large number of features it considered in its evaluation, the report identified that there were reduced population biomasses for many marine species, and very little evidence of recovery. This was especially evident for marine fish, and
Case Study 2
McDevitt-Irwin et al. evaluated the use of Canadian laws (i.e., Fisheries Act and SARA) to conserve marine fish at risk.6 They showed that once a species of marine fish was established as being at risk within Canada by the scientific committee responsible for making these assessments (the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada), there was a substantial delay in the decision by the federal government on whether or not to protect the species under SARA. Furthermore, species that were considered of greater risk of extinction (i.e., endangered and threatened species) had relatively longer delays in decisions (often due to prolonged consultation periods), and a greater rate of denial for protection. The authors also note that during these delays, subsequent evaluations of ‘at risk species’ occasionally moved them into higher ranks of risk (e.g., from threatened to endangered). Among the conclusions of this study, the authors determine that SARA delayed conservation efforts for marine fish, and that the Fisheries Act, as it was currently being implemented, was failing to meet its obligation to protect Canada’s marine fish stocks.
Case Study 3
North Atlantic right whales (NARW) are one of the most endangered large whales in the world. The population estimate in 2015 was 458 individuals,7 and
These three case studies, and many other reports, point to the conclusion that Canada is not adequately protecting its most endangered marine species. Fortunately, these reports provide recommendations for how this situation can be improved, so as to correct this deficiency in protection. There may also be evidence that the federal government is willing and able to act on these recommendations. In the 2017 NARW mortality event, there was a remarkable response by the federal government to protect NARWs. Immediately following the initial discovery of dead whales, the federal government acted quickly to close the local, active snow crab fishery and impose mandatory speed restrictions on commercial vessel traffic traveling through the area of the Gulf of St. Lawrence where the whales were most densely aggregated.
Fisheries Act, R.S.C., 1985, c. F-14, as amended.
Oceans Act, S.C. 1996, c. 31, as amended.
Species at Risk Act, S.C. 2002, c. 29, as amended.
J.A. Hutchings, et al., Sustaining Canadian Marine Biodiversity: Responding to the Challenges Posed by Climate Change, Fisheries, and Aquaculture, Expert Panel Report prepared for the Royal Society of Canada (Ottawa, 2012).
The Canadian Wildlife Service of Environment and Climate Change Canada is mandated to protect marine birds.
J.M. McDevitt-Irwin, S.D. Fuller, C. Grant and J.K. Baum, “Missing the Safety Net: Evidence for Inconsistent and Insufficient Management of At-risk Marine Fishes in Canada,” Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 72 (2015): 1596–1608.
R.M. Pace III, P.J. Corkeron and S.D. Kraus, “State–Space Mark–Recapture Estimates Reveal a Recent Decline in Abundance of North Atlantic Right Whales,” Ecology and Evolution (2017): 1–12, doi.org/10.1002/ece3.3406.
M.W. Brown et al., Recovery Strategy for the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) in Atlantic Canadian Waters [Final], Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series (Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2009).
P-Y. Daoust, E.L. Couture, T. Wimmer and L. Bourque, Incident Report: North Atlantic Right Whale Mortality Event in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 2017 (Charlottetown, PEI: Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, Marine Animal Response Society, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2017).