Volume 5, No. 3

Promoting Cooperation to Maintain and Enhance
Environmental Quality in the Gulf of Maine

Fall 2001
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Canada's best species at risk law
Q & A with Sherman Boates

By Jon Percy

Federal Environment Minister David Anderson commented recently that he hopes to pass species at risk legislation through the House of Commons by late fall. It will be the third attempt to enact such a measure. Whatever the outcome, the federal government could benefit from incorporating parts of the Nova Scotia Endangered Species Act, which has been recognized nationwide as the best species at risk legislation in Canada.

The plymouth gentian is listed as a species at risk in Nova Scotia
Photo courtesy of the NS Museum of Natural History.

The Gulf of Maine Times asked Sherman Boates, the manager of Wildlife Resources-Biodiversity with the provincial Department of Natural Resources and a research associate at the Acadia Centre for Wildlife and Conservation Biology, about the legislation and what it has accomplished. The following is an excerpt from that conversation.

How long has Nova Scotia had an Endangered Species Act?

The act is relatively new, only being passed in December of 1998. However, the process started two years earlier with the National Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk, a document in which the provincial and federal governments identified a common set of needs for endangered species legislation.

How are species designated for protection?

This is one of the aspects of the act that has been most praised in many circles because the listing is totally independent of any political involvement. A working group of six scientists, with myself as chair, reviews status reports and makes decisions about listing species. The members have expertise in different species as well as in population biology and conservation theory. Our designations become law as soon as the responsible Minister and Registry of Regulations are notified.

How many species are currently listed for protection under the act?

At present 16 species are formally designated under the act, including four birds, two turtles, one mammal and nine plants.

Are any marine species included?

There are presently no wholly marine species, although the roseate tern and the piping plover clearly have marine components to their life cycle. The selection of species is not based on jurisdictional responsibilities, but whether or not the law will benefit the species. In the case of the right whale, for example, it is unlikely that provincial laws could do much to improve things over what is already being done by the recovery team set up by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). However, we are thinking of listing the Atlantic whitefish, an endemic, anadromous species breeding only in Nova Scotia. Although DFO also has the lead on this species, there could be benefits from listing it under the provincial act. We are prepared to consider almost any species, but their listing will depend on whether or not the law will actually result in some benefit.

What specific protection does the act confer upon the species listed?

The act provides three levels of protection. Firstly, it prohibits the disturbance, killing, sale or trade of endangered or threatened species or their parts. Secondly, it protects their residency such as a bird's nest or a mammal's burrow. Thirdly it protects core habitats. The first two levels are automatic as soon as a species is listed. Once a species is listed we then have to identify and move to protect those areas that are critical to their long term survival and recovery.

Are there provisions for helping endangered populations rebuild?

Once a species is listed, there are certain steps that must be followed. First, a team of specialists has to be appointed to lead the recovery efforts. Second, this team, working with government, must then develop a recovery plan, a strategic document that outlines the problem, what needs to be done, when it will be done, who will do it and how much it will cost. For endangered species this plan must be in place within a year and for threatened species within two years. These plans generally have a five-year time horizon.

Many species listed are so-called "disjunct species" having their main distributions to the south. Why is it important to protect these remnant populations in Nova Scotia?

We are interested in them because they have been separated from the main populations for 10 thousand years or more. During that time they may have evolved distinct adaptive features. The large number of such species is partly due to the shape of Nova Scotia and its historic connections with New England. Some of these species are in serious trouble in the New England states. Their populations in Nova Scotia may be small but they are among the healthiest in the world. However, we really need an ecosystem approach rather than a political boundary approach and should be coordinating our protection programs with others around the whole Gulf of Maine.

If the provincial act is so good, why is there a need for a comparable federal act?

In Canada many responsibilities are shared between provincial and federal governments. Different species and land areas are the responsibility of different governments. Thus, it is critical to have a suite of laws that cover all the species and the places they occur. In the broader Gulf of Maine context it would also be nice to have some alignment between protection measures in the United States and in Canada because we are often dealing with the same biological entities. However, while it is important to have a variety of strong legal tools for the protection of species at risk, we can't rely only on laws. We as individuals have to be good stewards. Therefore, we need to educate and work with communities to improve the situation, for we all have a responsibility that goes far beyond just a legal responsibility.

Resources on the Web:

List and descriptions of endangered species:

General status ranks of wild species in Nova Scotia: