March 7, 2008
OTTAWA — The Canadian government is moving so slowly to protect disappearing plant and animal species that it is in violation of its own environmental laws, said a highly critical report released yesterday by the federal Environment Commissioner.
Climate change has preoccupied governments around the world but other threats also need attention, Ron Thompson told reporters.
“When I think about the kind of Canada that I want to pass on to my children and my grandson, I want them to enjoy loons crossing lakes in the evening,” he said.
“I want them to be able to awake in the summer to songbirds. I want them to be able to enjoy all of the clean water that we have just now. Now this isn’t just going to happen. This is going to require some work.
And that work does not seem to be happening quickly.
The Species at Risk Act required that recovery strategies be devised for 228 identified species by June, 2007, but at that date only 55 strategies had been completed.
The act also required government departments to single out critical habitats necessary for the survival of those species by the same date – yet only 16 had been pinpointed.
“The government has broken its own law and that’s not an inconsequential thing,” Mr. Thompson said.
Environment Minister John Baird said yesterday that he fought hard to get an additional $110-million over two years to help protect species at risk. “That will continue beyond the two-year period,” he told reporters.
But Aaron Freeman of the Environmental Defence Network said environmental organizations have had to sue the federal government three times over the implementation of the Species at Risk Act.
“They’ve got a clear legal obligation that they are not following through on,” Mr. Freeman said.
Moreover, Mr. Thompson’s report said, there are no guidelines for environment ministers to follow when they decide to ignore the advice of a special scientific committee and keep recommended plants and animals off the official list of wildlife species at risk.
That has happened 20 times since 2007, mostly as a result of socioeconomic considerations or because the government wanted to consult with wildlife authorities in Nunavut.
The Environment Commissioner also found that a strategy to protect environmentally sensitive areas has been developed but not implemented, that there is no assessment to determine whether the condition of those areas is improving, and that there are insufficient resources to address “urgent needs.”
One of the places where the efforts to clean up the environment has been measurably slow is the Great Lakes basin, Mr. Thompson said.
In 1987, the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement identified 17 severely degraded areas in that region. Seven years ago the Environment Commission found that there were no clear priorities established to tackle the cleanup. And Mr. Thompson said little progress has been made.
“After 20 years, only two of Canada’s original 17 areas of concern have been delisted – the latest in 2003,” said his report, which identifies contaminated sediments and overloaded municipal wastewater systems as the main impediments to progress.
The commissioner estimates it will cost $150-million to clean the sediments and $2.4-billion to fix the water systems, but “solving these problems is critical to restoring most areas of concern.”
Mr. Freeman said he found the Great Lakes section of the report to be the most stark. There was a commitment to address the problem in the last Throne Speech, Mr. Freeman said, but no money was offered in either the fall economic update or last month’s budget.
“We have seen major investments south of the border in Great Lakes cleanup where there’s been leadership from the federal government there,” he said.
“There is nothing to match that commitment on the Canadian side and it’s very much a federal budget commitment that’s needed.”
But Mr. Baird said that his government is taking significant action on the Great Lakes. “We have significant funding to clean up Randall Reef in Hamilton, one of the most contaminated sites in the Great Lakes,” he said, in addition to “cleaning up the sediment in St. Clair River, working on the Detroit River, as well as the Bay of Quinte and Lake Superior national marine conservation area.”
In need of protection
The Whooping Crane (endangered)
The natural nesting grounds of the whooping crane are almost entirely in Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the Alberta-Northwest Territories border. Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the early 1940s, and in 1978 the species was designated endangered.
To help keep the birds from dying out, recovery efforts have included protecting nesting grounds, public education, captive breeding and reintroducing young birds into the wild. Between 1989 and 1999, the Wood Buffalo whooping crane population increased by 35 per cent.
Today, the population at the park is estimated to be 237, but the species remains endangered.
The Atlantic Salmon, Inner Bay of Fundy Population (endangered)
This population of the Atlantic salmon spawns in rivers of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick that drain into the Bay of Fundy. Over 30 years, the Atlantic salmon population in this area has declined by more than 95 per cent. In 2001, the Inner Bay of Fundy Atlantic salmon was designated endangered.
To help combat the population loss, recovery efforts have focused on preserving salmon genetic diversity through captive breeding.
However, in 2003, fewer than 100 adults were estimated to have returned to rivers known to have contained the species.
The population’s status remained unchanged when it was re-evaluated in 2006. Sources: Parks Canada; Fisheries and Oceans Canada; Environment Canada; Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada; the Atlantic Salmon Federation
Key issues: Great Lakes cleanup and species at risk
SPENT SO FAR $355.5 MILLION
(1990 to 2005)
Wastewater infrastructure: $76.6M
Other: $9.3 M
Contaminated Sediments: $63.1 M
Fish and wildlife: $206.5 M
As of June, 2007, only 55 of the 228 required species-at-risk strategies were complete. Forty more were due last month.
STATUS BY DEPARTMENT
(As of June, 2007)
Fisheries and Oceans
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) recommended that the following be added to the at-risk list but the Environment Minister disagrees.
Wolverine, Western population
Barren-ground Caribou, Dolphin and Union populations
Pacific Sockeye Salmon
Pacific Sockeye Salmon
Interior Fraser population
Laurentian North population
Atlantic Cod Maritimes population
Atlantic Cod, Newfoundland
and Labrador population
Cumberland Sound population
Beluga Whale, Eastern High
Arctic and Baffin Bay populations
Eastern Hudson Bay population
Ungava Bay population
Western Hudson Bay population
Lower Fraser River population
Middle Fraser River population
SOURCE: 2008 STATUS REPORT OF THE COMMISSIONER OF THE ENVIRONMENT AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT