Economics Override Protecting Endangered Species

Whether the Canadian government follows scientists' advice to legally protect an endangered animal depends upon whether the species has any commercial value.

More often than not, fish and mammals that are harvested get turned down for listing under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA).

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) recommended 186 plants and animals between 2003 and 2006 for listing under SARA. The federal government, which has final say, bases its decisions on the assessments prepared by COSEWIC, an independent group of scientists. Once listed under SARA, a species receives enhanced legal protection from being harmed and requires planning for its recovery

The Canadian government approved SARA listing for 156 species, subspecies or populations and turned down COSEWIC's listing proposals for 30 others. A review by academics at four Canadian universities of the government decisions reveals that animals which are harvested or from northern Canada have the least chance of being approved for protection.

All of the birds, amphibians, and reptiles suggested by COSEWIC got listed. All but 3 percent of plants and 11 percent of invertebrates were also approved by government for protection. These accounted for 124 of the endangered, threatened or special concern organisms that acquired listing.

Fish and mammals had considerably less success at receiving government approval for legal protection. Animals that are harvested mainly didn't get listed. Only 5 out of 29 harvested fish and mammals became protected. In comparison, 27 out of 29 noncommercial fish and mammals gained legal protection.

The bias is especially prominent among marine fish, as only one out of eleven proposed by COSEWIC were added to the SARA list. The lone success was green sturgeon, a fish that tastes so unpleasant, commercial fishing fleets avoid it.

There's also a geographic discrepancy in the rate at which animals were listed. None of the ten recommended Nunavut species made it onto the SARA list. Overall, two out of 12 northern mammals were listed compared with 15 out of 17 mammals from other regions of Canada.

The authors of this study point to two factors that work against the listing of commercial and northern species. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans and territorial wildlife management boards seem reluctant to accept the additional management responsibilities that a listed species requires.

Secondly, the cost-benefit analysis prepared by the federal government before making its decision on whether to list a species holds undue sway. These regulatory impact analyses are a requirement of the Financial Administration Act and not subject to outside review. The reports emphasize commercial revenues while often omitting the benefits of conserving a species and the costs of extinction.

As a result, even highly endangered animals have gotten sidelined. A government-commissioned study estimated that ongoing overharvesting would render the eastern Hudson Bay beluga whale population extinct by as early as 2012. But the whales were still denied protection under SARA that would curtail hunting.

The case of porbeagle shark indicates that even small economic benefits are enough to prevent listing of an imperilled species. The population of porbeagle sharks has crashed by 90 percent and experts advise it's at high risk of going extinct. Just one or two commercial anglers still depend on porbeagle for their livelihood. Yet in 2006 the Canadian government, against the recommendation of COSEWIC, declined to protect the Atlantic shark.


A.Ø. Mooers, L.R. Prugh, M. Festa-Bianchet and J.A. Hutchings. 2007. Biases in Legal Listing under Canadian Endangered Species Legislation. Conservation Biology. 21(3): 572-575.

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