Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against the federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans for refusing to identify critical habitat – contrary to scientific advice – and, thus, gravely weakening the recovery strategy for the Nooksack dace, an endangered fish that lives in small streams in BC’s Fraser Valley, east of Vancouver.
At the same time, in an unusual move, three members of the government-appointed Nooksack dace scientific recovery team are speaking out publicly about the Minister’s decision, arguing that it reflects a systematic failure nationwide to adequately protect the habitat of endangered species.
Under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), identification of habitat critical to a species’ survival is required by law. Most species listed under the Act have suffered severe habitat loss or destruction. SARA requires critical habitat to be identified in recovery strategies to the fullest extent possible. Despite this requirement, officials with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans removed specific sections from a draft version of the recovery strategy identifying the critical habitat of the Nooksack dace.
“Protecting habitat is the single most important step in the recovery of almost all species at risk – and for the dace this needs to be done now,” said Dr. Michael Pearson, lead author of the recovery strategy, and a biologist who has spent ten years studying the Nooksack dace. “Unfortunately, as with other endangered species, the federal
government has chosen not to address critical habitat identification in the strategy for Nooksack dace, despite having the information and means to do it.”
The lawsuit, launched by Sierra Legal on behalf of Environmental Defence, Georgia Strait Alliance, and the Wilderness Committee, argues that failure to identify critical habitat in the recovery strategy represents a refusal by the federal government to enforce SARA.
Averaging less than 15 cm in length, the Nooksack dace is a freshwater fish that spawns and resides in the lowland streams of the Fraser Valley and about 20 streams in northwest Washington State. Studies over the last decade indicate that gravel mining, agricultural drainage, the depletion of streams for farm irrigation and residential use, and urban sprawl are all harming the habitat of the dace. As a result, the fish has disappeared from tributaries in Canadian watersheds where it was abundant as recently as the 1960s.
“SARA recognizes that protecting endangered plants and animals starts by identifying the places they need to survive,” said Aaron Freeman, Policy Director with Environmental Defence. “The government’s refusal to do so represents a brazen failure to enforce Canada’s endangered species law.”
“If we don’t act now to stop the destruction of this species’ habitat, we will have little chance to protect it and other species at risk,” said Christianne Wilhelmson of Georgia Strait Alliance. “The government’s actions are making the protection of habitat even harder than it already is.”
“Canada will lose endangered species unless the federal government starts meeting its legal obligation to protect habitat,” said Gwen Barlee of the Wilderness Committee. “Endangered species are lined up to fall like dominos in Canada because when it comes to protecting ourwildlife, politics is trumping science.”