Biologist knocks Species at Risk Act

Published on February 4, 2016
Brett Favaro, a researcher with the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland, speaks at the Coastal Matters series in Corner Brook on Wednesday.

The Canadian Species at Risk Act is a bad tool for protecting marine fish, says a conservation biologist working in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Brett Favaro, a researcher with the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland, outlined his reasons for that statement when he spoke Wednesday afternoon at Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook. At the Coastal Matters speaking series, the biologist had quite a bit of support in the room and received several suggestions as to what could be done.

Favaro said the act is in crisis. He suggested one or more of three things must happen: create a separate law for depleted marine fish, new language within the existing law, or triggers within existing law requiring action when a fish is at risk of extinction.

A common perception, he said, is a species gets protected when it becomes endangered, but Favaro said it’s more complicated.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada determines whether a species is in danger of going extinct. Government officials decide whether the species will be listed and protected, said Favaro, adding factors such as cost and political will are involved.

“It is a policy maze,” he said.  

He suggests the act is undermined by the political influence on the committee and overdue or incomplete recovery strategies. He said only 15 of the hundreds of species identified as at-risk have an action plan.

Favaro says the system is even more dire with respect to marine fish. He said if the protection of marine fish is linked to a significant investment, it doesn’t get listed. No marine fish have action plans, he added.

He also presented evidence that very few of the species at risk in the country ever reach a recovered level — 5.4 per cent, or 20 of the 369 species — and the trends for marine fish are worse. For marine species, one of the biggest factors leading to at-risk status is overfishing. Although marine fish listed as endangered have experienced considerable decline, they still have large populations.

If the act is imposed as written, said Favaro, fisheries would be closed in the risk areas, but what happens in practice is not that extreme. Instead, he said, the act is essentially adapted. For example, there are no guarantees against by-catch in a fishery, so allowances are usually added.

Provisions are usually made to record any at-risk species of marine fish caught as a by-catch and to release it.

“Think about if we did this with barn owls,” he said. “You are allowed to go into the forest, toss a net over a barn owl, and do whatever it is that you do, beat it up a little, and then put it back on the tree.

“It’s crazy. We wouldn’t allow that.”

Favaro says it’s easy for him to lobby to list more fish, but managers are in a hard place because the design of the act makes it unenforceable.

“You can’t close all these fisheries,” he said.

Favaro is encouraging discussion about possible alternatives. Those talks are expected to happen at the International Marine Conservation Congress in St. John’s, July 30-Aug. 3.