On Feb 13, 2018 the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife In Canada (COSEWIC) announced its recommendation stemming from the emergency review of the status of Interior Fraser Steelhead. We’ve known that was coming for several weeks and we’ve been reasonably confident the obvious would prevail. It did. Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead have been assessed as endangered (i.e. they face imminent threat of extirpation) and recommended for listing as such under Canada’s Species At Risk Act (SARA).
People need to appreciate who this recommendation is coming from. The members of COSEWIC are not some ad hoc group of unknown technicians. They are the equivalent of the gold standard among scientists in this country and they operate under the law of the land. The Canadian public can have the utmost confidence its conservation interests are well served by COSEWIC.
On surface the COSEWIC recommendation is the tool that will dramatically alter the course of the primary, controllable force responsible for the endangered status – the commercial and First Nations fisheries operating along the steelhead migration routes approaching the Fraser River and within the river itself. Lest anyone be under illusions here, the COSEWIC/SARA process needs to be examined more closely.
Let me begin with two quotes taken directly from SARA documents:
- …..the government of Canada is committed to conserving biological diversity and to the principle that, if there are threats of serious or irreversible damage to a wildlife species, cost-effective measures to prevent the loss or reduction of the species should not be postponed for lack of full scientific certainty.
- This is in keeping with the Supreme Court’s articulation of the precautionary principle: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental regulation.”
On with a critical review of what we are looking at in months and years ahead. What I refer to in the material that follows comes directly from a presentation given by the Regional Manager of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), Species At Risk Program, at the “Forum on Conservation and Harvest Planning for Fraser Salmon” in Richmond on Jan 23, 2018. Such a recent summary by someone so close to the process was a perfect source to illustrate what a COSEWIC recommendation means. For those concerned I am unfairly treating or misrepresenting the material presented, I invite you to review the full presentation.
Here are the highlights and milestones as they pertain to the Interior Fraser Steelhead (lets just refer to them as Thompson steelhead).
- The COSEWIC recommendation for an emergency listing as “endangered” now rests with Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change. The law says the Minister has 90 days to decide if there is an imminent threat and, if so, make a recommendation to the federal Cabinet to confirm the endangered listing under SARA……….but the Minister must consult with DFO and form an opinion based on that consultation, as well as the COSEWIC assessment.
- If those Thompson fish survive that process and do get listed, there will be a further assessment conducted by COSEWIC to either confirm its listing or to remove it from the list. That takes one year.
- If the endangered listing is upheld, automatic prohibitions apply (i.e. killing, harming, harassing, capturing of Thompson steelhead would be forbidden) but not before a recovery strategy and action plan is developed and critical habitat defined. The latter is habitat necessary for survival and recovery of the species.
- If the endangered listing is not confirmed, the consequences are essentially what we have in place today. In other words, write those Thompson steelhead off.
- The listing process “must be informed by the best available information.” That entails development of a consultation plan that incorporates existing advisory processes, governance processes, consultation planning and communications. (Starting to sound familiar?)
- The anticipated timelines described by our DFO Manager in that Jan 23 presentation is where we start to understand what those Thompson fish face. To begin with, Thompson steelhead were included in her presentation but not in the context of any timetable. We can figure some of that out, though, by referencing other stocks of salmon recently classed as endangered. Those 8 Fraser sockeye stocks that were recently added to the list will not be the subject of that obligatory Federal Cabinet decision until 2022. The pathway to that point calls for recovery potential assessment, proposed management scenarios, socio-economic analysis, consultation on listing approach and, finally, a listing recommendation. If Thompson steelhead are not even included on the DFO timeline chart yet I think it reasonable to assume it wouldn’t be until at least 2022 that we would see the endangered listing that would kick in those items described in #3 above. Then there would be that additional time involved in those requirements.
All things considered, there can be no mistaking that Thompson steelhead are not going to receive treatment substantially different over the next several years than they have in the past four or five. Extirpation would seem to be unavoidable if due process is followed. How else can any reasonably informed person interpret the circumstances described herein?
No doubt there will those who defend process as the only game in town. To that I’ll add some further advice that originates from an article published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences (probably the most respected journal of fisheries science in the western world). (Missing the safety net: evidence for inconsistent and insufficient management of at-risk marine fishes in Canada Jamie Marie McDevitt-Irwin, Susanna Drake Fuller, Catharine Grant, and Julia Kathleen Baum Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 72: 1–13 (2015)).
Here is the quote from that paper that tells us what we need to know:
“Overall, at-risk marine fishes typically spend 3.25 years under consideration for SARA, during which time they receive no additional protection. Endangered and Threatened marine fishes (i.e., those most at risk) face the greatest bias and receive the least protection; their SARA decisions are typically delayed, with almost 5 years usually passing between their COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) assessment and listing decision; most (70.6%) are then denied listing, after which the Fisheries Act provides few of the SARA-required measures. For SARA-listed marine fishes, recovery strategies are usually late and to date no action plans have been produced. Marine fish conservation is hindered by SARA’s slow pace, incomplete recovery measures, and inadequate implementation of the Fisheries Act.”
The other points of note in this paper were the authors’ condemnation of Integrated Fisheries Management Planning (IFMP) processes and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification process whereby fisheries like the Fraser chum fishery are green stamped as “sustainable”. The authors state plainly that MSC in particular has a responsibility to ensure certified fisheries are not endangering species at risk. Remember, in the context of Thompson steelhead, the province is a major player in the MSC game through its Ministry of Agriculture (fish processor licensing agency and seafood marketing agency) interface with DFO as the provincial voice of steelhead. You can get a sense of what that is all about by reading my post of Jan 22 (Against All Odds – The Future of Thompson Steelhead in the Balance).
Where to from here? If we allow the COSEWIC and SARA agenda to be followed as it is best understood today we deserve what we get. Here’s some alternatives to think about.
- IFMPs and SFAB forums are useless from a steelhead perspective. If anyone can offer evidence of steelhead ever being accommodated in any significant way through either one of those DFO forums, provide your comments here. The people I know who have made a significant effort to assess the efficacy of these consultative processes share my view enough is enough. Its time to abandon the addiction of process and send a strong signal to the convening agency.
- Demand your elected provincial and federal government representatives pay attention to Thompson steelhead. In terms of steelhead in British Columbia, they represent the canary in the coal mine. Remind our politicians at every opportunity these fish face extinction on their watch. Forget the usual polite letters that rarely, if ever, receive a response that obligates the sender to actually do something. Demand face to face sessions and attend them armed with penetrating questions. Demand answers.
- Use social media at every opportunity to drive the message home. Thompson steelhead are an iconic internationally revered treasure that represent an important component of the lifestyle and social fabric of this country. We will not stand idle and witness them relegated to photo albums. The fact that there was an emergency assessment conducted by COSEWIC was, in no small part, the result of noise coming from deeply concerned lay persons. If there is one thing our elected representatives pay attention to it is criticism directed at them though mainstream and social media. The more, the merrier.
- Invest in lawyers instead of process. There are measures afoot to engage legal experts to test DFO’s legal obligations under SARA. The principle actors involve a coalition of the four main steelhead advocacy groups in BC plus two other conservation focused organizations with extensive experience in the political arena. Watch for more from them in days ahead.