Canada to Species at Risk: Marine Mammals Need Not Apply

A new study shows that Canada puts economic and local political interests ahead of saving species, even those that need the most help because of changes to their habitat or because of overharvest.  The study by C.S. Findlay, et al. (2009), “Species Listing under Canada’s Species at Risk Act,” appearing in Conservation Biology, shows that species at risk from climate change in Canada or those that are threatened by runaway harvest/hunting are least likely to be protected under Canada’s version of the Endangered Species Act.

Canada adopted the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2003.  Like the U.S. Endangered Species Act, it sets forth a process for a science-based categorization and listing of species at risk.  But SARA is weakened by a political stage of the process, wherein recommendations for listing can be, and often are, ignored by Canada’s cabinet and designated stakeholders, such as commercial interests and local governments.

The paper by C.S. Findlay, et al. highlights problems with this political part of the process.  It shows that certain species in Canada – potentially those most in need like the polar bear – face an uphill battle for protection.  First, the study shows that species with a predominantly northern distribution are much less likely to be listed and that this “northern effect” is particularly true for species living in Nunavut (Canada’s newest, largest, and northernmost federal territory).  The paper suggests that this may have to do with local governments in Nunavut opposed to federal meddling in their affairs.

Second, the study shows that species harvested for commercial trade are less likely to be listed.  That is, if the species is a money maker in Canada (like polar bears for tourism), it is less likely to be protected.  Finally, the study shows that those species managed by Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans agency, including marine mammals, and/or any species that are predominantly native to Canada are less likely to be listed.  Apparently, Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans agency undertakes a cost-benefit analysis before making listing decisions for aquatic species.  This means that economic interests impact listing decisions, not just conservation needs.

What do these findings boil down to? – Bad news for Canada’s marine mammals and other species most at risk from climate change.  Here’s why:  projected changes in Canada’s annual mean temperatures will be most extreme in Nunavut.  This map from Natural Resources Canada shows that in the next 50 years Nunavut will experience the greatest increases in temperatures, with annual mean temperatures rising by 4 to 6 degrees Celsius.  These temperature increases will translate into changing habitat for numerous species, such as polar bears – whose habitat is literally melting away.  But these species will not find comfort in Canada’s Species at Risk Act because listings for species in Nunavut are much less likely to be successful than other regions of Canada, apparently because the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board is particularly hostile to federal authorities in Ottawa meddling in the management of Nunavut species.

The news gets even worse for species like polar bears that are harvested for economic reasons (approximately 300 bears are killed every year in Canada for commercial purposes).  According to another study on Canada’s endangered species, overexploitation is the most important threat to marine mammals and marine fishes. (See O. Venter, et al. (2006), Threats to Endangered Species in Canada, Bioscience, 56, 903-910).  But again, while these species may need the most help, the Findlay et al. study shows that they are less likely to get it because moneyed interests will oppose losing these cash flows.

So, Canada’s message to the world:  Trust us, we will do the right thing for species at risk, except where protections are needed most or if we’re making money off the species.  Oh, and if it’s a species only found in Canada, why should you care, if we don’t?  But, of course, we do care and will continue to fight to save polar bears, even if Canada’s laws won’t do the job.  You can learn more about NRDC’s campaign to save polar bears and what actions you can take here.