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Atlantic Salmon and SARA - Canada's Species at Risk Act


Wild Atlantic salmon in Canada are divided into 16 sub groups based on genetic similarities by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

In 2011, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, known as COSEWIC, released an assessment of the 16 sub-groups of wild Atlantic salmon in Canada. Committee members relied on information from index rivers, angler surveys, and periodic studies to review large areas. COSEWIC members assessed four of the 16 populations as Endangered and five as Threatened. The remaining populations were assessed as Not at Risk or Data Deficient.

The COSEWIC assessment was received by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), triggering an internal process that culminated in a 2015 recommendation to the Minister on whether any of the 16 sub-groups should be listed under Canada's Species at Risk Act (SARA). 

The recommendation was not made public and was not acted upon for years. Then, in late 2020, DFO staff informed some stakeholder groups that a listing decision would be made in 2021. It's a move that suddenly threatens access for fishing and conservation to hundreds of rivers in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. If a population is listed as Threatened or Endangered, activities like angling and Indigenous fisheries are prohibited and conservation work is constrained by red tape.

A SARA listing for Atlantic salmon is unnecessary and may actually contribute to further declines.

Four reasons why SARA won't help Atlantic salmon:

  • DFO is already equipped: DFO has the legislation, regulation, and policy it needs to restore and maintain healthy wild Atlantic salmon populations.  The Wild Atlantic Salmon Conservation Policy is being implemented, and the new Fisheries Act restores lost protections for habitat and includes provisions for rebuilding plans for depressed populations. A SARA listing is not necessary for DFO to begin restoring wild Atlantic salmon and would not likely bring new resources or expertise to bear. 

  • The data are old and too broad: The Minister of DFO will be making a decision in 2021 mostly based on data gathered prior to 2010. As a result, if listing proceeds, some rivers will receive a designation that does not reflect present reality. For example, the Conne River in South Newfoundland was Threatened in 2011 and may be Endangered today. Other rivers with relatively healthy populations could have fisheries closed based on incomplete information. As well, the 2011 COSEWIC assessments do not account for positive initiatives like the 2018 Greenland Salmon Conservation Agreement, new federal programs for habitat improvement, and new protected areas. 

Four reasons
  • SARA is ineffective: As the World Wildlife Fund noted in their 2017 Living Planet Report, animal populations in Canada listed under the Species at Risk Act continued to decline between 2002 and 2014 and in some cases the decline worsened. For Atlantic salmon, the Inner Bay of Fundy population was listed as Endangered in 2003 and remains on the verge of extirpation. It took DFO seven years to develop a recovery strategy and 16-years to define critical habitat for the population, all with little effect on the ground. As well, a SARA listing would close low-impact fisheries, but the law does not require serious threats like open net pen salmon aquaculture be addressed.

  • Wild Atlantic salmon need people who care: SARA requires that Indigenous and recreational fisheries on Threatened and Endangered populations be closed indefinitely, despite the fact many rivers in these large areas can support well-managed fisheries that produce significant cultural, social, and economic value for local communities. These values, and the people who hold them, are the foundation of the salmon conservation movement. For example, most river conservation projects in Eastern Canada are carried out by NGOs, volunteers, and Indigenous organizations - many connected to fisheries and often all working together

The need for shared stewardship is a core pillar of DFO's Wild Atlantic Salmon Conservation Policy. Yet experience has shown that when fisheries close public interest wanes and populations do not recover. Therefore a decision to close fisheries in rivers that can support them is counterproductive to DFO's goal of restoring and maintaining healthy wild Atlantic salmon populations.   

Researchers have found that apathy toward wild Atlantic Salmon is a significant impediment to recovery and even where rivers have closed, the hope of a reestablished salmon fishery is a core motivation for groups that remain active.

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