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Canada fumbles on fin whales, sits out on CITES, and stalls on SARA

By Sheryl Fink      

Government rhetoric about standing up for endangered species needs to be backed up with decisive action, both at home and abroad.

Two weeks ago in the House, opposition trade critic and NDP MP Don Davies, demanded to know why Canada was trading in the meat of highly endangered fin whales. Minister of Trade Ed Fast seemed a bit surprised by the question, but replied forcefully that “we stand up for the protection of endangered species.” Indeed, earlier this year Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird pledged $2-million to end illegal wildlife trafficking in Africa and called on world governments to protect threatened species.
But there is a growing concern about Canada’s commitment—or lack thereof—when it comes to protecting endangered species, a fact that was brought to light several times over the past week. Beyond our role in the trade in endangered fin whales, Canada appears to be flouting our commitments to international conservation agreements and stalling on taking action to protect endangered species here at home.
In March of 2013, 76 new species were added to Appendix I and Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). CITES is an international conservation agreement with the fundamental goal of ensuring that the international commercial trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Roughly 36,000 species of animals and plants are currently protected by CITES against over-exploitation through international trade. Almost every country on earth is a signatory to this Treaty.
Species listed at CITES are protected here in Canada by adding them to the Wild Animal and Plant Trade Regulations, a relatively simple and straightforward process allowing authorities to crack down on illegal wildlife trade.
Until now. Since the last Conference of the Parties—almost two full years ago—Canada has yet to add any of the newly-listed species to our domestic regulations. Instead, we have taken the unprecedented and unusual move of placing reservations on all 76 species that were given protection at the last CITES meeting.
Placing a reservation on a species listed on CITES appendices signifies that a party does not accept the decision of the Conference of the Parties.  According to Article XXIII of CITES, “Until a Party withdraws its reservation entered under the provisions of this Article, it shall be treated as a State not a Party to the present Convention with respect to trade in the particular species or parts or derivatives specified in such reservation.”  
Placing a reservation on a listed species is an indication to the Conference of the Parties that Canada will no longer participate in the implementation of CITES for those species. Unconditionally placing a blanket reservation on ALL newly listed species—as Canada has done—defies logical explanation.  There is no reason why we should not commit to our role in the protection of such species as manatees, swallowtail butterflies, and Ecuadorian vicuña. And while it technically makes us compliant with the treaty, in practice it means we have opted out of our obligations to protect these species, raising serious questions about our commitment to CITES and endangered species protection.
And Canada isn’t only failing to protect endangered species in the international arena. Last week a study by Canadian scientists published in the prestigious journal PLOS One found that our Species at Risk Act (SARA) is almost totally ineffective at protecting our endangered species. According to the study, 86 per cent of species assessed multiple times since 1977 either stayed at the same risk level or deteriorated over time. The authors found that the status of species at-risk in Canada rarely improved, with only 5.7 per cent of those assessed recovering to a “not at risk” status.  
Troublingly, the probability of a species improving in status did not increase with the amount of time since listing under SARA.  In contrast, there was a strong correlation between the number of years a species is listed on the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the actual recovery of that species, suggesting failures in the Canadian legislation, its implementation, or both. The authors conclude that the best strategy is to actively prevent species from becoming at-risk in the first place, and while that might elicit a collective “duhh” from the general public, it takes political will in Ottawa to make that happen.
Government rhetoric about standing up for endangered species needs to be backed up with decisive action, both at home and abroad. Failure to do so risks the loss of precious wild species that, once gone, can never be recovered.
Sheryl Fink is director of the Canadian Wildlife Campaigns for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
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