Thank you very much, and good afternoon.
I'm a research scientist specializing in the ecology and genetics of marine mammals. I head the Vancouver Aquarium's cetacean research program.
The aquarium's mission is to effect the conservation of aquatic life through display and interpretation, education, research, and direct action. As such, it has a direct and abiding interest in the successful implementation of the Species At Risk Act.
I've been co-chair of the resident killer whale recovery team on the west coast since 2005, and I've worked on recovery strategies for six other marine mammals in Canada and one in the U.S. I also serve as an adjunct professor of zoology at UBC.
Today I'll discuss two ways in which lack of clarity, in my opinion, in the Species At Risk Act has led to confusion and inconsistency in species recovery planning, and I'll present some recommendations for improvements.
As committee members will know, SARA specifies that the plans for recovery must be developed in two discrete stages: formulation of a recovery strategy and formulation of an action plan. The act doesn't make clear why it specifies this two-stage process. Indeed, there's considerable confusion on the part of government managers about why such a system exists.
In my opinion, the drafters of SARA were correct in specifying this two-part process, because recovery really does involve two rather different sets of considerations.
The first step, preparation of a recovery strategy, is the strictly objective and scientific process of understanding and describing why a species is at risk and determining what general kinds of things would need to be done to alleviate that. It contains a description of critical habitat, if known; threats to the species; general measures that would reduce threats and protect critical habitat; and criteria for determining when recovery has occurred. The important point is that it should be a scientifically defensible document, a point the act fails to mention.
The second step, the preparation of an action plan, is the process of compiling a specific set of pragmatic recommendations about what in fact should be done to achieve the strategy, and that's given the constraints imposed by other laws, treaties, socio-economic factors, the imperative to minimize cost, and so on. This second step isn't strictly scientific, nor should it be. It brings lawyers, economists, stakeholders, and so on into the mix.
SARA, as I mentioned, doesn't clearly distinguish between the function of these two steps--between the separation of science and policy. Indeed, by requiring that recovery strategies be prepared in cooperation with stakeholders, it fails to recognize a fundamental need for scientific objectivity and it muddles the distinction between the two, that is, between strategies and action plans.
I'll talk a little bit about scientific advice. SARA specifies that COSEWIC must carry out its functions—the assessment of listing of species—using the best available scientific, community, and aboriginal knowledge. However, once COSEWIC has finished its job, the act is silent about using scientific expertise in recovery strategies or action plans.
It does specify that critical habitat must be determined based on the best available information, and in practice this has been interpreted as primarily scientific. However, based on my experience, I can say for the record that acquiring and incorporating scientific and other advice in recovery strategies is inconsistent at best. There are no built-in safeguards against bias or perceived bias in the choice of experts from whom advice is sought.
Let me explain how the process of working in this advice works at present. Recovery strategies are usually drafted by recovery teams, including government and non-government members. This membership is determined on an ad hoc basis, but generally includes species experts, representatives of NGOs and aboriginal groups, industry stakeholders, and representatives of other provincial governments and federal departments.
However, SARA doesn't specify that a recovery team must be used. In the last few years, DFO in particular has moved instead to using working groups of government staff. In some cases, these working groups invite external experts to technical workshops to hear the professional opinions, but they draft the recovery strategies themselves.
Recovery teams have been used in Canada for many years, and also in the U.S. Because they include non-governmental members, their deliberations are transparent—or tamper-resistant, if you like.
In contrast, these internal working groups may well engage in spirited debate behind closed doors—I'm sure they do—but at the end of the day the members are bound by internal directives and aren't free to express concerns to the public about the process or its outcome. The use of internal working groups removes transparency from the recovery planning process, limits the input of non-government scientists, restricts public and scientific scrutiny, and, as such, is less likely to produce objective recovery strategies than are teams.
To illustrate the strengths of recovery teams over internal working groups, I'll refer to my own experience as co-chair of the resident killer whale recovery team. We had 23 members, of whom about one quarter were federal government employees.
In May 2006, we completed a draft of the strategy and submitted it to DFO for the minister's consideration. The draft contained a description of critical habitat, as required by SARA, and was completed within the specified timeframe.
As Dr. Findlay has mentioned, and as Dr. Pearson will reiterate, critical habitat is essential to recovery planning. Without a description of critical habitat, little can be done to conserve a species.
DFO didn't post the document by the legal deadline, but it began a process to amend it by removing the critical habitat section. This was done in accordance with a draft policy, which the team was not allowed to see. Nor were we allowed to see the amendments, which were simply described to us. We expressed concern and requested an explanation, and when that wasn't forthcoming, we resisted the change by requiring that our names be removed from the document.
DFO took no action until the following spring, when it restored the critical habitat section but revised another key section in response to a request from the Department of National Defence. That section was also restored after the team objected. Shortly thereafter, DFO made a third amendment, without explanation, by removing a section listing threats to critical habitat. This, too, was withdrawn after strong objection by the non-government members.
The strategy was finally posted in March 2008, more than a year and a half after the legal deadline.
The Minister of Fisheries and Oceans posted a critical habitat protection statement in September 2008 saying, in effect, that no protection of critical habitat was necessary. This led to the launching of a lawsuit by a large and influential group of NGOs. The statement was rescinded in February 2009 and was replaced, at last, with a critical habitat protection order.
My point in detailing this litany of roadblocks is that without a recovery team with independent members, the killer whale strategy would not contain the essential elements for recovery.
In light of these experiences, I have two simple and clear recommendations for amendments to SARA. First, the revised version should clearly describe the reasons for separating recovery strategies and action plans by noting that the former must be science-based and objective, and the latter must be subject to social and economic constraints.
Second, SARA should specify that the competent minister must seek the best available scientific advice in the preparation of recovery strategies; should use recovery teams and commit to a transparent process for determining their membership; and should ensure that teams include independent species experts.
Thanks again, and please feel free to look me up at the Vancouver Aquarium the next time you come to British Columbia.