The Species at Risk Act

The Species at Risk Act (SARA) was enacted in 2002 to prevent Canadian wildlife and plants from becoming extinct and to provide for their recovery. There are three federal authorities responsible for implementing the Act: Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the Parks Canada Agency.

In order for the Act to apply to a species it must first be listed for protection. This involves a two-step process. First, a species must be assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an independent scientific body that assesses the status of species and designates them as extirpated, endangered, threated, special concern, or not at risk. Second, for a species designated in one of the “at risk” categories, the Federal government must decide whether to add it to the formal list under SARA. If it does not decide within nine months, the Minister of the Environment must list it.

The problem with this process is that the Federal Cabinet has the authority but often does not follow these scientific recommendations.  For example, government scientists have recommended that polar bears be added to the list of endangered species several times, but the federal government has continually postponed adding the bear for protection. This has left the polar bear without any plan for protection throughout most of Canada. The porbeagle shark has also been denied protection by SARA because it might have impacted the fishing industry – despite a 90 per cent decline in the porbeagle shark population (Suzuki Foundation).

Nature Canada gave the SARA an overall grade of F at its five year review, indicating that: “Discouragingly, after six years of SARA implementation, only two species have had critical habitat protected outside of existing protected areas, and these only in response to a court case!” (Nature Canada)

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The Scope of the Act

The SARA act only applies to federal lands – this would include national parks, airports, RCMP detachments and even post offices! Most public, or Crown lands in Canada are under provincial jurisdiction. This leaves very little of the country under the direct jurisdiction of SARA to protect. Important to note is that the SARA does contain a special “safety net” provision that can protect areas normally under provincial jurisdiction, but only with the authorization of the Minister of the Environment. The “safety net” to our knowledge has never been applied.

Now what?

The Minister of the Environment has the authority to enforce the protection of countless species at risk, what is needed now is public pressure to raise awareness of the laws that currently allow for broader protection of Canada’s biodiversity. In addition to this, a Provincial strategy for legislative change must be implemented, more to come on those proposals soon.

It is important to note that the orcas who are in captivity in marine themed parks within Canada are not subject to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) or the Species At Risk Act (SARA). These legislative instruments are important tools that can be important in the fight against the trade of protected species when enforced, but currently, this has not been the case.