Canada's threatened marine species missing the safety net

New research led by UVic biologists and published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, shows that marine fish species that are at risk of extinction are not being protected under either Canada's Species at Risk Act (SARA) or its Fisheries Act, and that this is leading to further species' decline.

"Less than 20% of at-risk marine fishes in Canada have been listed on our Species At Risk Act," says Susanna Fuller, co-author and Marine Program Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax. “The failure of the Canadian government to list many of these species is largely because they are all either targets or unintended catch in commercial fisheries.”

The study, “Missing the safety net: evidence for inconsistent and insufficient management of at risk marine fishes in Canada”, examined the Species At Risk Act listing process and Integrated Fisheries Management Plans (which are meant to implement the Fisheries Act) to see if species considered “at risk” – designated Special Concern, Vulnerable, Threatened or Endangered by the Committee on the Status of Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) – received conservation measures to rebuild them. It included Atlantic cod, cusk, porbeagle shark, bluefin tuna, sockeye salmon among others deemed at risk due to low population levels, mostly as a result of to overfishing. Many of these marine fishes are harvested commercially. “The rationale from our government has been that we can adequately protect these species under our Fisheries Act,” continued Fuller. “Unfortunately, what we find is that simply not the case.”

“When it comes to conserving our marine biodiversity all of the policy mechanisms are available, but our government consistently drags its heels and avoids taking action,” says Julia Baum, a co-author and Assistant Professor in Biology at UVic. “Our analysis reveals that once assessed as at-risk, marine fish species typically spend over 3 years awaiting a decision about whether they will be listed under SARA.”

During the long wait, these species do not receive any protection measures to help them recover. Not surprisingly, this often results in a speciesʼ status deteriorating while itʼs being considered for protection under SARA.

“This is akin to diagnosing a patient as being seriously ill, and then asking them to come back for treatment in three years,” says Fuller. “Then when they return for treatment, half the time they are turned away.”

The situation is most egregious for marine fishes designated as Endangered, the most serious at-risk category. “We found a clear trend in Canada that the more at risk a marine fish is, the less likely it is to be listed on our Species At Risk Act,” says Jamie McDeviit-Irwin, lead author and a UVic Biology graduate student.

Differences were also found between at-risk marine fishes in the Atlantic vs the Pacific, with twice as many marine fish species considered at risk (42) in the Atlantic as compared to 21 in the Pacific.

“Missing the Safety Net” concludes that species at risk can potentially recover without being afforded legal protection under the Species At Risk Act, but that would require consistent implementation of Fisheries Act measures that aim to reduce bycatch, protect sensitive seafloor habitat, and manage harvest levels with a view towards population recovery. While not identical to the protections afforded under SARA, these measures could significantly benefit at-risk marine fish species.

“We know that our oceans are facing a biodiversity crisis,” says Fuller. “Fish populations in Atlantic Canada have collapsed and not recovered increasingly commercially fished species are being assessed as threatened and endangered. If they are not protected under SARA, we need to be much more serious about immediate protection through existing measures and fishing industry stewardship.”

The study also found eco-certifications of fisheries by the Marine Stewardship Council offers little additional to at risk marine fisheries.