Evidence of meeting #9 for Environment and Sustainable Development in the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was species.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Cynthia Wright  Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment
  • Pardeep Ahluwalia  Director General, Species at Risk Directorate, Department of Fisheries and Oceans
  • Mike Wong  Executive Director, Ecological Integrity Branch, Parks Canada Agency

9 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair James Bezan

We'll call the meeting to order. We have quorum. We're going to kick off our study today on the review of the Species at Risk Act.

We're welcoming to the table today officials from the Department of the Environment, Parks Canada, and DFO. From the Department of the Environment we have Cynthia Wright, who's the acting assistant deputy minister, environmental stewardship branch. Welcome. From Parks Canada we have Mike Wong, who's the executive director of the ecological integrity branch. Welcome to the committee. From the Department of Fisheries and Oceans we have Pardeep Ahluwalia. Welcome to you all.

I understand that you're doing a joint presentation, so we look forward to your opening comments.

I'll turn it to you, Ms. Wright, to kick us off.

9 a.m.

Cynthia Wright Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Good morning, and thank you, Chair.

9 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair James Bezan

Mr. Warawa.

9 a.m.

Conservative

Mark Warawa Langley, BC

On a point of order, just a reminder, Chair, that we were hoping to have all documents received at committee before the witnesses arrived. This gives us a chance to review the documents and be much better prepared to hear from the witnesses. This is just a reminder that, if at all possible, we need to receive these documents 24 hours prior.

9 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair James Bezan

Duly noted, and we will encourage witnesses to make sure we get their presentations in plenty of time, especially when we've given them some notice of appearing at committee.

With that, we'll turn it back to you, Ms. Wright.

9 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

Thank you.

Together my colleagues and I are going to speak to you about the implementation of the Species At Risk Act, or SARA, as we tend to call it. We'll give you a fairly high-level overview of the act and the progress to date.

SARA is premised on the view that it is in our interest to protect species at risk. Canada's biodiversity is essential to the health and well-being of Canadians and our economy. For example, 13.6% of Canada's GDP depends on healthy ecosystems through forests, agriculture, and the oceans. Healthy ecosystems perform a number of functions, including carbon sequestration, clean air and water, disease and pest control, pollination of food crops, recreation, and spiritual benefits. Biodiversity provides the bank of genetic material essential to innovation in many economic sectors, such as agriculture, forestry, and the pharmaceutical industry.

While we may intuitively understand the value of biodiversity, in the past 250 years, only about 15% of the planet's estimated biological diversity has been described in any meaningful way. Of the more than 70,000 species found in Canada, there are only slightly more than 7,700 species that we meaningfully track. Of these, over 70% can be considered secure in their status. SARA focuses on the species facing risk of extinction. Threats of species include the loss of habitat, over-exploitation, pollution, and the impacts of climate change. For some ecosystems, the loss of ecological integrity and habitat has been significant over the past 100 years: on the order of 70% for native prairie wetlands; more than 99% of prairie tall grass; and over 80% for the native Carolinian forest.

The Species at Risk Act explicitly recognizes that the responsibility for conservation of wildlife in Canada is a shared responsibility. It is not something that the federal government can accomplish on its own. The accord for the protection of species at risk was agreed to by the federal government and provinces and territories in 1996. The goal of the accord is to prevent species in Canada from becoming extinct as a consequence of human activity. The accord committed each jurisdiction to use its own laws and regulations to protect species at risk. For the federal government, this applied to migratory birds, aquatic species, and species on federal lands. SARA is the key legislation for the federal government to implement the accord.

SARA was put in place to prevent wildlife species from becoming extinct or being extirpated, which means no longer existing in the wild in Canada, and to support their recovery. It addresses all wildlife in Canada, ranging from large mammals, to fish, to insects, to plants. It legislates the requirements for assessment, protection, and the recovery of species at risk in Canada. Prior to SARA, most of this work had been carried out under non-statutory programs. SARA is prescriptive in the many ways of how these functions are carried out. It sets out timelines for actions. It also requires consultations at most key decision points.

Under SARA the accountability is shared with the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Minister of the Environment, who is also responsible at this point for Parks Canada. The Minister of the Environment is responsible for the overall implementation of the act, for terrestrial species on federal lands, and, as the minister of Parks Canada, for all species within the lands and waters under the jurisdiction of Parks Canada. They're responsible for making recommendations to the Governor in Council and for all migratory birds under the Migratory Birds Convention Act. The Minister of Fisheries and Oceans is responsible for implementing the act for all aquatic species outside of national parks and for providing the Minister of the Environment with listing recommendations on aquatic species.

SARA formally requires or enables several governance and advisory bodies. It formalizes the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, or COSEWIC, which is the independent body of experts created in 1978 that makes the assessments on the status of species. It formalizes the role of the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council, which is comprised of federal, provincial, and territorial ministers responsible for wildlife. This is co-chaired by the federal Minister of the Environment.

It has created the National Aboriginal Council on Species at Risk, or NACOSAR, which has six members appointed by the Minister of the Environment. It also allows for the Species at Risk Advisory Committee, SARAC, which has about 25 members from industry and resource sectors, academia, and environmental organizations. It meets with officials a few times per year.

Based on experience working on species under SARA and provincial and territorial legislation, the ministers of the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council signed a national framework in 2007. It followed up on the 1996 accord and set out common principles, objectives, and overarching approaches for species at risk conservation to guide federal, provincial, and territorial programs and policies. It set out a cycle of five interrelated components that are formalized in SARA, which I will now describe briefly.

SARA separates the process for conducting scientific assessments on the status of wildlife species from the decision on whether or not to list the species under the act. The independent assessments are handled by COSEWIC, the independent body of experts appointed by the minister. Species can be classified as special concern, threatened, endangered, extirpated, extinct, data deficient, or not at risk. COSEWIC has assessed at total of 775 species; 551 of them have been determined to be at risk in Canada, and 13 have been assessed as extinct.

The decision whether or not to list a species under the act is reserved for the Governor in Council. It is made on the recommendation of the Minister of the Environment after consultation. For aquatic species, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans provides the recommendation to the ministers of environment. SARA sets out the timelines for the listing process. It is also important to point out that the listing decisions are subject to the cabinet directive on streamlining regulation, which requires a description of the socio-economic impacts of the decision. This is because listing is done by an order and evokes immediate protection and prohibitions. There are now 425 species listed under the act, nearly double the number at the time of proclamation.

For endangered and threatened species, SARA sets out the requirements and timelines for recovery strategies and action plans, including the identification of critical habitat. For species of special concern, management plans are required. When SARA became law, 233 species were listed on schedule 1 of the act. Recovery strategies were required by June 2007 for 190 species listed as threatened, endangered, or extirpated. Management plans were required by June 2008 for 43 species listed as special concern.

This has presented a significant challenge to the department. Recovery strategies for 106 species are now completed, and strategies for an additional 172 species are well under way. The pace is picking up. We continue to learn how to use ecosystem and multi-species recovery approaches. There are now more than 20 of these in place.

A great deal has been accomplished through voluntary stewardship actions by Canadians to care for species and habitat. There are several federal stewardship funding programs to incent this action. The habitat stewardship program is the key federal funding program aimed at encouraging Canadians to protect key habitat for species at risk, especially critical habitat on non-federal lands. Since 2000 it has funded 1,400 projects at a cost of $82 million, and leveraged an additional $203 million in investment. The national areas conservation program is also making important contributions to recovery. Actions can also be taken under other federal legislation, including the Fisheries Act and the Oceans Act.

The final part of the conservation cycle is monitoring and evaluation to determine the effectiveness of protection and recovery measures and to make adjustments as necessary. The ultimate goal is to delist species that have recovered.

I'll now turn to Pardeep.

March 10th, 2009 / 9:10 a.m.

Pardeep Ahluwalia Director General, Species at Risk Directorate, Department of Fisheries and Oceans

Thank you.

When we think of aquatic species in the context of the Species at Risk Act, the first part we think of is that Canada is, as we all know, a maritime nation, with the longest coastline in the world and an extensive system of lakes and waterways. These are home to a diverse population of aquatic species, both marine and freshwater, which are an important component of Canada's biodiversity, of its natural heritage, and of its natural resources. Some of these species are iconic symbols of Canada; others are important for a wide variety of commercial, aboriginal, and recreational purposes. As the competent minister for all aquatic species outside of national parks, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans uses SARA as well as a number of other legislative tools, including the Fisheries Act and the Oceans Act, to protect species at risk.

In implementing SARA, a number of complexities arise. While similar complexities apply to many terrestrial species and migratory birds, some are particularly acute when dealing with aquatic environments. Aquatic ecosystems often involve multiple populations of species inhabiting the same physical space, sometimes with complex interrelations and interdependencies. Particularly in the marine environment, many species are highly mobile and inhabit Canadian waters only in specific seasons.

Also, there are specific interests related to aquatic resources or the aquatic environment. These include commercial, aboriginal, and recreational fishing; marine and internal navigation for both commercial and national security reasons; hydroelectric installations; and water control systems. Actions related to the conservation and protection of one species at risk are likely to have impacts on other species as well as on the variety of interests.

There are also complex jurisdictional issues at play for aquatic species. While DFO is responsible for aquatic species, it typically does not have jurisdiction on or for lands abutting aquatic environments, making inter-jurisdictional cooperation and collaboration essential.

There are significant challenges with information as an increasing number of less well-known species are being assessed. While sufficient information may be available for the assessment process, other information is often insufficient to effectively support recovery planning.

The complexity of dealing with aquatic species at risk is especially highlighted when we consider the activities related to the harvest of aquatic species and the communities and industries that are dependent on them. Commercial fisheries, both marine and freshwater, operate in environments that are typically multi-species in nature. Undertaking protection and recovery measures under SARA for an aquatic species at risk is likely to have consequences for the commercial harvest of other species found in the same place at the same time.

There's also the added complexity of SARA-related restrictions on aboriginal access to aquatic species, which are traditionally harvested for subsistence, and the consequent impacts on maintenance of traditional lifestyles and cultures.

We've selected three examples of species that illustrate successful conservation outcomes that are directly due to the powers of SARA and would likely not have been achieved without this important legislation. The first of these is the northern abalone, which is a bottom-living marine mollusc. It was once a valuable fisheries species, important to coastal first nations and commercial and recreational fishes. All fishing for this species closed in 1990 because of large population declines. Abundance has continued to decline since then, likely due to illegal harvesting.

The Species at Risk Act prohibits harming, killing, and selling individuals of listed species. The enforcement of the SARA prohibition has directly led to arrests and convictions and is helping to put a stop to the illegal harvest of abalone. In addition, the captive breeding project is being used to supplement the wild population, which should help contribute to recovery.

9:15 a.m.

Mike Wong Executive Director, Ecological Integrity Branch, Parks Canada Agency

Thank you, Pardeep.

The next example of the species at risk legislation at work is a species called the forked three-awned grass. This is a fairly unremarkable grass occurring in a few restricted areas in Ontario and Quebec. The term “awns” refers to the bristles that protect the plant's flowers. Much of the remaining population occurs on land owned by the Beausoleil First Nation, who were planning the construction of a community centre when they discovered the presence of this endangered species.

The first nation worked very closely with the federal government to adjust the construction plan and to protect the plant and its habitat. The outreach and education efforts led to increased awareness of this endangered species and motivation to protect it. The Beausoleil First Nation have taken ownership of the protective measures, are active in its recovery actions, and have erected large education billboards presenting the species to the public.

The next example is the black-footed ferret. This is a small nocturnal weasel that is extremely rare and probably extirpated in Canada. They depend on short-grass prairie and their main prey is the black-tailed prairie dog. The prairie dogs are now limited to a very small area in Saskatchewan, which effectively limits the recovery of this particular species. There are probably no ferrets remaining in the wild in Canada, but they are kept in captivity at the Toronto zoo and can be reintroduced into the wild. Because prairie dogs are generally viewed as a nuisance by our ranchers, there would have been very little interest in re-establishing prairie dog and black-footed ferret population without the cooperation and cooperative efforts launched under the Species at Risk Act.

Ferret recovery planning has been done in conjunction with prairie dog management planning, so the ranchers' concerns are fully addressed. Although ranchers were strongly opposed to the idea in the past, a well-designed and inclusive SARA recovery planning process resulted in broad consensus on the reintroduction of the ferret. This will likely take place in the fall of this year.

Cynthia.

9:20 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

Let me conclude with a few final comments in light of the review.

Experience has shown it takes time to achieve recovery. The sea otter, once extirpated from Canada, was reintroduced to the west coast in 1969. Initially assessed as endangered by COSEWIC in 1978, it was downgraded to threatened and then to a species of special concern in 2007. Other long-term success stories include the whooping crane and plains bison.

Through the first five years of experience of the act, we've continued to learn and refine our practices. With resources and management structures in place, with many procedures in place as well as overall implementation policies for decision-making close to final, and with practices improving, the pace of implementation throughout the SARA cycle is now steadily improving.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

9:20 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair James Bezan

Thank you very much.

We're going to kick it off into our first round. You have seven minutes, Mr. McGuinty.

9:20 a.m.

Liberal

David McGuinty Ottawa South, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you very much to you folks for being here this morning.

Can I begin with Ms. Wright, just to ask a question based on a number of your overheads? I'm trying to get some understanding of your budget. There's nothing here with respect to your budget. Can you help us understand if this is shared? Say the purpose of SARA as you have it here on slide five is threefold: prevention, recovery, management and special concern. You talk about two line departments and one agency, but in their own jurisdiction enforcing and implementing SARA, Environment Canada is the overall implementer, correct?

9:20 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

9:20 a.m.

Liberal

David McGuinty Ottawa South, ON

So statutorily you have the responsibility for ensuring that DFO and Parks Canada are actually doing their jobs?

9:20 a.m.

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Environmental Stewardship Branch, Department of the Environment

Cynthia Wright

For ensuring that, but they do, actually, execution as well.

9:20 a.m.

Liberal

David McGuinty Ottawa South, ON

Okay.

How much money do you have this fiscal year ending, for example, for all SARA activities at Environment Canada?