CESD finds insufficient Monitoring, Listing and Enforcement is undermining protection of Species at Risk and Biodiversity in Canada

CESD finds insufficient Monitoring, Listing and Enforcement is undermining protection of Species at Risk and Biodiversity in Canada

CESD finds insufficient Monitoring, Listing and Enforcement is undermining protection of Species at Risk and Biodiversity in Canada



Since 1995, the Office of the Auditor General of Canada has had a mandate to report on the federal government’s efforts to protect the environment and foster sustainable development. This mandate is carried out by the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development (CESD) which has just released its fall 2022 reports  The primary focus of these reports is the federal efforts toward the protection of species at risk and the protection of biodiversity in Canada.

The CESD found that although there is federal legislation in place to address Canada’s species at risk, it is clear that there are problems.  There is lack of effective monitoring and reporting on conservation and recovery activities by the three departments primarily responsible for species at risk and biodiversity in Canada: Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), Environment and Climate Canada (ECCC) and Parks Canada.  With respect, to listing of aquatic species at risk, DFO lacks a clear and effective process and lacks sufficient information for providing listing advice.  Lack of capacity at DFO hinders compliance and enforcement activities, not to mention there is a bias toward the protection of commercial aquatic species.

As pointed out by the Federal Court:

[101] To state the obvious, the Species at Risk Act was enacted because some wildlife species in Canada are at risk. As the applicants note, many are in a race against the clock as increased pressure is put on their critical habitat, and their ultimate survival may be at stake.

Much could be done to improve the Species at Risk Act and the Fisheries Act as tools for the protection of species at risk and biodiversity.  For instance, the listing process under the Species at Risk Act could be modified to align with recommendations made by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).  With respect to aquatic species at risk, both the DFO and ECCC could work together to ensure a clear focus on species at risk as opposed to species of commercial interest.

At the least, the existing Species at Risk Act and the Fisheries Act need to be effectively implemented to achieve their goals.  This means sufficient funding to ensure adequate capacity for much needed enforcement activities, monitoring and reporting on recovery and conservation efforts, and collection of data necessary for good decision-making.  This needs to be done sooner than later: for many species there is no time to waste.

Why do we have reports by the CESD?

Under the Federal Sustainable Development Act, the CESD reports on the federal government’s efforts to protect the environment and foster sustainable development.  On October 4th, the CESD’s Fall 2022 reportswere released and include:

  • Backgrounder: Biodiversity in Canada, Commitments and Trends,
  • Protecting Aquatic Species at Risk, and
  • Departmental Progress on Implementing Sustainable Development Strategies – Species at Risk.

It should be noted that the CESD also released a report addressing the Management of Low and Intermediate Level Radioactive Waste, and the annual reports on Environmental Petitions and on the Progress on Implementing the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy.  However, this blog is focused on summarizing only those CESD’s reports which relate to  species at risk and biodiversity.

Backgrounder: Biodiversity in Canada, Commitments and Trends

This backgrounder was released by the CESD in light of its plans to release several performance audits related to biodiversity between 2022 and 2024.  The backgrounder briefly explains the concept of biodiversity and its importance.  As well, the backgrounder identifies the principal threats to biodiversity as being habitat loss and degradation, invasive alien species, over exploitation, pollution, and climate change.  Habitat loss and degradation is the primary threat to biodiversity.

Specific information about biodiversity in Canada is also provided in the backgrounder.  This includes brief lists of some species that are extinct or in decline in Canada, and some species that show signs of recovery after historical declines. Biodiversity status and trends are summarized in a table.

The backgrounder indicates that there are currently 1,555 vulnerable species, 790 imperiled species and 658 critically imperiled species in Canada, along with over 8,000 species that lack sufficient information to be assigned a status rank. We note that in its most recent report, COSEWIC – an advisory panel that makes recommendations on the designation of species – identified 842 species at risk in Canada (19 of which are extinct).  However, only 640 species are listed for protection under the federal Species at Risk Act.   

Since developing the first list of endangered wildlife in 1978, the number of species identified as being at risk in Canada has steadily increased over time.

A brief overview of Canada’s participation in international agreements and commitments relating to biodiversity is also provided in the backgrounder.  Canada is a signatory to the Convention of Biological Diversity as well as:

In addition, Canada is signatory to other agreements that involve fewer countries such as the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds in the United States and Canada. The backgrounder identifies federal legislation that is relevant to protection of biodiversity in Canada (while noting there is no federal overarching biodiversity legislation in place).

Protecting Aquatic Species at Risk

The federal government has set species at risk targets under its federal strategy pursuant to the Federal Sustainable Development Act.  The federal strategy is meant to support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (Goals 14 and 15 are particularly relevant to aquatic species at risk). The two main federal pieces of legislation for the protection of aquatic species at risk in Canada are the Species at Risk Act and the Fisheries Act.

The Species at Risk Act is meant to prevent animals, plants and other organisms from disappearing from Canada.  As mentioned, COSWIC is an advisory panel to the Minister of ECCC  comprised of wildlife biology experts that makes recommendations on the designation of species.  The Minister may, but is not required to, accept the recommendations of COSEWIC and list species under the Species at Risk Act.

Once a species is listed under the Species at Risk Act, there are prohibitions against the killing, harming, harassing, capturing or taking a member of that species.  As well, there is a prohibition against destroying any part of its critical habitat, or damaging or destroying its residence.  However, these prohibitions primarily apply on federal lands, and to aquatic species and migratory birds.  If a provincial government is not taking sufficient steps to protect a listed species, then a federal “safety net” may be applied to extend these federal prohibitions to provincial and private lands.  Listing also triggers requirements for recovery strategies and action plans or management plans to protect and recover listed species.

The Fisheries Act protects fish and fish habitat throughout Canada.  This act includes a prohibition against the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat, and a prohibition against the deposition of deleterious substances into waters frequented by fish.  There are also provisions for the designation and protection of ecologically significant areas, and the restoration of fish habitat.  It should be noted that “fish” is broadly defined to include not only fish but also shellfish, crustaceans and marine mammals.  There are also some provisions regulating the harvesting of marine plants in coastal waters.

This report summarizes the CESD’s audit into whether DFO, in collaboration with others, adequately protected selected aquatic species at risk (the audit looked at 12 species including certain populations of Atlantic Cod, Steelhead Trout and Chinook Salmon).  For the species it looked at, the audit found that, although DFO put some measures in place, there was not an adequate contribution to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 14 and 15 as they relate to the protection of species at risk.

As well, the audit found that DFO’s knowledge of some aquatic species was limited with the result that DFO did not develop timely advice for listing under the Species at Risk Act and that its listing advice was sometimes poorly informed.  In this regard, the audit found unclear departmental roles and responsibilities; unclear guidance (for example, guidance on steps to be taken if no consensus on listing among regions); inadequate training; and gaps in tracking and documenting key steps in the process.

It is also noteworthy that the audit found – for the 12 species it looked at – that the DFO’s “advice was not to list any of the species that had significant commercial value” (page 18).  The audit revealed that the “types of reasons and factors that [DFO] presented in the [listing] advice differed for species that were commercially valuable” (page 19).  The CESD recommends that DFO conduct clear and objective analysis that supports the Species at Risk Act listing advice.  As well, where species are not listed there should be preparation, implementation and review of species work plans.

The audit also found that DFO did not have adequate capacity to enforce the protection of species at risk.  For example,, the audit found that the number of staff dedicated to the compliance and enforcement with respect to freshwater species in the Ontario and Prairie region which includes the Northwest Territories and Nunavut was low.  There are only 30 fishery officers for that very large region (this means only6% of fishery officers manage 45% of all listed species included in the audit).  In addition, data required to track enforcement activities was missing, inconsistent or inadequate and there was insufficient staff to perform required data validation. The audit found that DFO’s primary approach was to use the Fisheries Act to protect fish and fish habitat while managing fishing opportunities, and compliance was encouraged by using public outreach.

Departmental Progress on Implementing Sustainable Development Strategies – Species at Risk

Under the Federal Sustainable Development Act, 27 federal organizations were required to develop sustainable development strategies between 2019 and 2022.  The CESD assesses how well these organizations have met their strategies, and the extent to which they have contributed to federal sustainable development targets.

This particular audit looked at the species at risk targets under the federal strategy (as well as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 15 which the federal strategy is meant to support) and the 3 departments responsible for preparing strategies to contribute to these targets: i.e. DFO, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), and Parks Canada.  The CESD assessed each organization’s performance in its respective departmental activities as set out in the departmental sustainable development strategies and performance measures, the implementation of each department’s actions, and the reporting by each department to track progress.

The CESD report notes that, together, DFO, ECCC and Parks Canada have the largest impact on protecting species at risk in Canada which means that measurable actions and clear progress reporting by these departments is important to convey whether or not Canada is meeting its sustainable development goals pertaining to species at risk.  The audit found that these departments did contribute to the federal species at risk targets by identifying intended actions and aligning those with the federal strategy.

However, the audit also found that the strategies were flawed in that some conservation and recovery activities needed to track and demonstrate progress were not included in the departmental strategies. Accordingly, there were gaps in departmental progress reporting. The audit found, for instance, that these 3 departments did not consistently report results on the development and implementation of recovery plans and on monitoring activities to show species at risk population trends although these trends are embedded in federal targets. Furthermore, none of the departments reported on how their actions supported the United Nations’ Goal 15.




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