Endangered and threatened marine fish species in Canada are routinely refused protection by the federal government, contrary to scientists' recommendations, a new study has found.

In fact, the more endangered the fish are, the less likely they are to get protection under Canada's endangered species legislation, researchers at the University of Victoria and the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax report.

"It's a bit of a perverse outcome," Julia Baum, a University of Victoria biologist who co-authored the report, said during an interview with CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks that airs Saturday.

And while the federal government says that species that aren't listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) will still get protection under the Fisheries Act, Baum and her colleagues found "absolutely no evidence" that that has ever happened.

"They're missing the safety net," said Susanna Fuller, marine conservation co-ordinator for the Ecology Action Centre and co-author of the study published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.

Fishing boats

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says 'every effort is made to work co-operatively with fishing, aquaculture and other industries to meet the objectives of the Species at Risk Act.' (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

When a species in Canada is thought to be threatened, it's evaluated by scientists with the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Based on the science, they may recommend that the species be listed as at risk, threatened or endangered under SARA. The government decides whether to accept the recommendation following a process that includes public consultations and economic impact assessments.

The researchers found that the government usually decides not to list fish under SARA – and the more threatened they are, the less likely they are to be listed.

Since the SARA came into effect in 2003, COSEWIC scientists have determined that 62 fish species in Canada are at risk of extinction. Of those, only 12 (19.3 per cent) have been listed under SARA, including just three in 12 endangered species, and just two of five threatened species. Most (60 per cent) are awaiting a government decision.

Economic considerations

When asked to respond, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) said in an email that "every effort is made to work co-operatively with fishing, aquaculture and other industries to meet the objectives of the Species at Risk Act."


The porbeagle shark was evaluated as endangered by Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, but the government later decided not to list it under the Species At Risk Act. (George Shaw/Reuters)

It added that economic and social implications of protecting a species under SARA are considered as part of its decision-making process.

"DFO is committed to ensuring the biological sustainability of Canadian fisheries while maximizing economic opportunities for fishermen, and takes into account science, conservation and stakeholder input when making its fishery management decisions," it wrote in the email.

Another problem faced by endangered marine species is it can take years for the government to make decisions about whether to list them under the Species At Risk Act, and they get no extra protection in the meantime, Baum said.

"You can think of them as patients that are diagnosed with being critically ill and then instead of being treated, we ask them to wait and wait and wait. And those that are most ill — those that are endangered — wait the longest."

As an example, Atlantic bluefin tuna and Atlantic cod were deemed endangered by COSEWIC in 2010, but both still await a decision about whether they will be listed under SARA. In the meantime fishing quotas for both species have been increased.

Bluefin Tuna

The bluefin tuna quota in Atlantic Canada was increased last year even though the giant fish still awaits a decision about whether it will be listed under the Species at Risk Act. (Chris Park/Associated Press)

The researchers show that while both SARA and the Fisheries Act offer lots of protection for endangered fish on paper, they rarely pan out in reality. 

Fuller blames a lack of political will, leading to a lack of resources to create conservation policies and put them into practice.

"I don't think protecting our oceans and protecting species at risk has been a big priority for the government over the last nine years," she said.

The new report includes a number of recommendations, mainly for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, including:

  • Getting a jump-start on conservation measures for at-risk species while the government is still deciding whether to list them under the Species At Risk Act.
  • Using conservation measures under the Fisheries Act to protect at-risk species that aren't listed under the Species at Risk Act.

"They're not radical," Fuller said of the recommendations. " They're about implementing the rules and laws that we already have in Canada."