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New designations by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada

May 09. 11

Wildlife experts say the once-common barn swallow should be listed as threatened. Photo credit: Derek J. Matthews

Canada's top wildlife advisers say the Atlantic bluefin tuna — which has been known to fetch $1,000 per kilogram on sushi markets — is so overfished it should be listed as an endangered species. But the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is in no hurry to stop the killing of the iconic fish in Maritime waters.

"Our Atlantic bluefin tuna fishery is the best managed fishery of its kind in the world today," Frank Stanek, DFO's manager of media relations, said by email when asked if the call for the endangered listing would put an end to the fishery. About 500 tonnes of the bluefin tuna were caught in Canadian waters last year.

"It would be premature to discuss the listing of these species under the Species at Risk Act before formal consultations with Canadians, further analysis of existing scientific information, and possible social and economic impacts are considered," Stanek said.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) announced its bluefin tuna recommendation Monday when it released the grim status of several species that it says need protection under Species at Risk Act.

Alan Sinclair, who co-chaired the COSEWIC's bluefin assessment, said overfishing was identified as "the main threat" to bluefin tuna.

"It only makes sense to reduce fishing or to stop fishing altogether in order to reduce and eliminate this threat," he said.

Personally, Sinclair added, "I think Canadians should stop fishing this magnificent fish. It has been exploited for several decades; now it's time to give it every opportunity to recover."

COSEWIC includes experts from provincial, territorial, federal wildlife agencies, as well as aboriginal and public representatives. It met in Charlottetown, P.E.I., last week and its recommendations now go to the federal environment minister for listing consideration under the act.

If the bluefin is listed as endangered, it would put an end to the Canada's controversial bluefin tuna fishery.

The bluefin is one of the most highly sought-after fish in the world "with some market prices exceeding $1,000 per kilogram," the committee says.

"Unfortunately, its value has driven the species into a steep decline since the 1970s with recent abundance reaching an all-time low," said COSEWIC, noting abundance of spawning fish has declined by 68 per cent over the past 2.5 generations.

Bluefin tuna are fished along the east coast of North America as they migrate to the Maritimes from their spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico.

And spawning tuna were exposed to Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the gulf last year. "While the effects of the spill on the species are currently unknown, it may represent an additional threat," COSEWIC said.

The committee also raised alarm over several other species — from the once-common barn swallow to the eulachon, a small fish that used to be a cultural mainstay of many First Nations people. But the committee did have some good news, saying the humpback whale has made a comeback.

"The population off the Pacific coast is increasing steadily, despite continuing threats including collisions with ships, entanglement with fishing gear and underwater noise," the committee said.

It recommends that North Pacific population of the humpback be reclassified as a species of special concern, which is less worrisome than the threatened status the humpback has had since 1985.

The eulachon was once so common along the B.C. coast, First Nations people hauled the fish and its oil across the mountains creating the famed "grease trails" that linked coastal and inland communities. The fish, a dietary mainstay, contains so much oil they were also used as candles.

"Since the early 1990s, many traditional fisheries for this species have seen catastrophic declines of 90 per cent or more, and the species is facing extirpation in many rivers," COSEWIC said. "The cause is unclear but may be related to reductions in marine survival associated with shifting environmental conditions, bycatch, directed fishing and predation."

The Nass River, in northern B.C., still supports a fishery but even their numbers have declined to the point where the population is threatened, the committee said. Populations on the central coast and the Fraser River are even worse off and should be listed as endangered.

As for the barn swallow, the wildlife experts say the once-common bird should be listed as threatened. Declines of up to 76 per cent in the past 40 years "baffle bird experts," the committee said, but changes in habitats, insect communities and climate have all been implicated.

The committee also said two rare species in Ontario should also be listed as endangered — the salamander mussel that is now only found in the Thames River and the Hungerford's crawling water beetle, seen in only three Lake Huron streams.

"Observed declines coupled with habitat degradation and restricted range led to a designation of endangered for both species."

By Margaret Munro, Postmedia News

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