On World Tuna Day, let’s ‘tuna’ Canada’s policy on Species at Risk into something great

by Tina the Bluefin Tuna

Today we celebrate the 6th annual World Tuna Day – an opportunity for the world to rejoice with me and my relatives! This is an interesting year for me here in Canada with some big decisions coming about how my species is going to be managed into the future.

Tomorrow, the Government in Council (GIC) will release the final and official decision NOT to list Atlantic bluefin tuna like me on the Species At Risk Act (SARA). Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) released its recommendations not to list the species nine months ago but it needs the stamp from the GIC to be final.

Even with this decision, it’s clear that we Atlantic bluefin need more attention, as my population is at just over half the levels from 1970s, when we were already depleted.

By Aziz Saltik (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 Now those are some good lookin’ fish! | Photo: Aziz Saltik (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Let’s back up and talk about the Species At Risk process

Before a species is considered for protection under SARA, it must be assessed by a body of independent Canadian scientists called the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (or COSEWIC, for short). The Committee looks at the amount a population has declined, the vulnerability of its habitat, the kinds of threats it faces and various other factors, and determines if, and to what degree, the population or species is at risk of disappearing from Canada.



COSEWIC designated us as Endangered in 2011 because my population had undergone a decline of 69% over just three generations. The justification for this, according to the committee, included the decline of abundance of spawning fish, and the fact that efforts to rebuild had seen little success. Once assessed by COSEWIC, a species is then passed to the federal government, who must decide whether or not a species shall be listed for formal, legal protection under SARA. Listing under SARA means that the species is protected under Canadian law, and it is illegal to kill, harm, harass, capture or take an individual, as well as posses or trade of products made from them.

DFO’s recommendation on bluefin was to not list bluefin under the Act, mostly citing the socio-economic impacts that would result from closing the Atlantic Canadian bluefin fishery if listed.


I’m hoping that further protection for bluefin doesn’t swim along slowly, like this guy. | gif via World Wildlife Fund


New policy ahead?

My population has experienced significant declines, and although the most recent science shows some signs of improvement in stock health, the population still hasn’t recovered and there is a great deal of uncertainty in the science.

Luckily, DFO already has a policy for dealing with this kind of situation – in December 2013, the Department released its Species at Risk Act Listing Policy and Directive for “Do No List” Advice, that has so far not actually been used as no new species listing decisions have some down the pipeline until now. So this means we are test tunas! This policy directs the Department to provide a clear rationale on why a species is not being listed, what additional actions will be taken to protect or rebuild a species in lieu of listing and include any activities “incremental to the status quo” (AKA doing something beyond what they’ve already been doing), and if no additional actions are being taken, DFO must give a good reason why.

By Oliver Dodd (CC BY 2.0)

Quickly rebuilding tuna populations means this gal won’t have to keep swimming alone | Photo: Oliver Dodd (CC BY 2.0)

In DFO’s rationale for the “Do Not List” advice for bluefin, there is mention of actions that will be undertaken, but unfortunately these actions are pretty much the status quo. The Department says it will continue to manage bluefin through the international body which governs it, which is no different from what has been done in the past.

DFO also mentions the need to update the Integrated Fisheries Management Plan (IFMP), a document meant to “guide the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources”. However, Department has been promising this for more than three years, and the document hasn’t been updated since 2008. Updating the IFMP is a part of normal fisheries management practice, and shouldn’t constitute a new or additional activity to protect the species. DFO also committed to reviewing at-sea observer coverage, which if too low creates issues for data collection and enforcement of fisheries regulations, however this, too, is something that has long been promised but not achieved.

The Auditor General’s report on Sustaining Canada’s Major Fish Stocks, released last year, made similar points on DFO’s shortcomings with fisheries management.

Let’s ‘tuna’ this into something good

My friends at the Ecology Action Centre have some more specific ideas on how to improve the listing policy workplan, which they’ll be releasing soon. They are also participating in the working group established by DFO, which will serve to further develop the bluefin workplan with various interested stakeholders (no tunas invited though!). In the meantime, I have some ideas of my own.

By Simon Acer Sea Shepherd (CC BY-ND 2.0)_2

No fish exists in a vacuum! Especially when you’ve got lots of friends to travel with. | Photo: Simon Acer/Sea Shepherd (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Firstly, the Canadian government needs to commit to being precautionary in their decisions on bluefin, which means making decisions that minimize the risk to my species’ recovery, and leaving space for the uncertainty that exists without compromising rebuilding. They also need to adopt modern best practices in fishery management by incorporating pre-determined rules into decision making.

Secondly, DFO needs to remember that fish like me don’t exist in a vacuum! We are a part of a complex ecosystem – lots of different factors like climate change, weather and prey affect us, and we affect many other species ourselves, as predators. If people want to keep us healthy and our population growing, they need to understand how all these things fit together and take them into account when making decisions.

Finally, the government needs to make sure that they know what’s really going on, on the water. Some fisheries that catch tuna also catch and kill large numbers of other species, some of which aren’t even used. Others aren’t monitored very closely, so the scientists who help to advise the decision-makers aren’t getting enough data to be able to give confident estimates of how my population is doing. By monitoring these fisheries more closely, we would have more information on the bluefin and other species that are caught, which could give us a better idea of how healthy their populations are, and that would certainly help me sleep better at night (that is, if I slept at all).

Let’s hope that on this World Tuna Day, the decision not to list my species as endangered can still turn into good for my population. For now, I’m off to celebrate!


Seeya! | gif via Monterey Bay Aquarium



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