SARA, Northern Gateway, and the marbled murrelet.

Photo by Andrew Reding |

Photo by Andrew Reding |

 In what can be described as a very necessary and stern wake-up call, the federal court has ruled on the side of five environmental organizations that filed suit against the federal government for the neglect of their legal responsibilities under SARA in the face of Northern Gateway pipeline development.

We recently outlined the filing of the lawsuit and the four reasons behind it: the southern mountain woodland caribou, the marbled murrelet, the Pacific humpback whale, and the Nechako white sturgeon. Despite each species being legally listed as “at risk” in Western Canada, the federal government failed to propose recovery strategies for each species and missed submission deadlines by 6.5 years.

This act prompted the Federal Court’s 47-page ruling, stating “public officials are not above the law”. Justice Anne Mactavish went on to declare the case as “the tip of the iceberg” of a major systematic problem in both the environment and fisheries ministries, both of which are in charge of protecting endangered and threatened wildlife. As several energy infrastructure expansion projects loom in Canada’s future, major systematic problems in environment and fisheries ministries does not bode well for Canada’s majestic western wilderness; but it does leave room for public and private bodies to step in a make them accountable.

While this ruling spotlights the bureaucratic failures that plague environment and resources ministries in Canada, the ruling’s more immediate influence is catalyzing overdue and legally required protection strategies for the four identified species.  Parallel to this legal proceeding between the Federal government and environmental organizations is an opportunity to understand what threatens these four species and why the Northern Gateway development begs protective strategies.  

Species at Risk #2 - The Marbled Murrelet

A small-sized, north Pacific seabird that nests in old growth trees, the marbled murrelet has been listed as a Species At Risk since June 2003. However, the Committee on Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) designated the seabird as threatened back in 1990. A the time of COSEWIC’s designation the causes for concern regarding the marbled murrelet were rooted in high rates of habitat loss in coastal old growth forests, fisheries by-catch, and oil spills.

Today, these causes for concern persist and continue to threaten marbled murrelet population. For reasons that are still mysterious to researchers, the marbled murrelet is a sea bird that nests close to 60 km inland, with nests that lie on the thick mossy platform branches of protected old growth trees.  As logging spreads into more remote coastal regions, habitat loss prevails as the leading cause of population decline. Despite replanting efforts, second growth trees cannot grow at fast enough rate to reach the age, size, and form that the murrelet depends on. Logging and other forms of resource development also result in habitat fragmentation that exposes the murrelet to more predators, strong winds, and other disturbances that outpace the bird’s ability to adapt to these environmental changes.

As mentioned earlier, oil spills and fishery by-catch are both threats that the marbled murrelet face at sea where it hunts for itself and its young. Spills and by-catches have not killed as many marbled murrelets compared to other species, but even one death is hugely detrimental to this seabird population. This is because females produce only one offspring per year, and so fewer reproducing females or loss of young offspring can cause dramatic population decline year to year. Consistent decline over a number of years can conceivably risk extinction if mitigating measures do not intervene. 

Given that pipeline development will necessitate the clearing of old growth forest for pipeline installation and tanker traffic will expose the marbled murrelet to the risk of oil spills, strategic habitat and population planning can effectively work to mitigate the potentially harmful impacts this anthropogenic activity could have. The need for strategic specie recovery plans presents the ministries with an opportunity to set an innovative, proactive example and improve their  bureaucratic track record with SARA. Albeit this is idealistic, it is not unrealistic if collaboration and cooperation permeated across government and non-profit borders. Organizations such as the David Suzuki Foundation have the willpower, passion and focus, while the ministries themselves have the legislative power and resources to mobilize the latter, theoretically.

Meanwhile, vocal pressure from the bottom up can help sustain the urgency of this issue. It can also send a message to government actors at all levels that the issue of SARA and the Northern Gateway pipeline represents Canadians’ value and demand for a government that can pursue economic and energy development parallel to legally required, coherent, and scientifically sound environmental and specie planning.  You can join a group that vocalizes and implements action and awareness on issues such as this one, or write to your MLA with your knowledge on the issue, or both! Even sparking discussion with friends, colleagues and family on the topic of SARA and the government legal obligations under the umbrella of pipeline development can build insight and maybe catalyze further action.

It can be argued that the extinction of one species, such as the marbled murrelet, is likely to have a negligible impact in a very large, diverse BC ecosystem.  This argument represents a very narrow and weak understanding of the environment. The collapse of a specie population has the power to catalyze a domino effect of distress among symbiotic and parasitic relationships that all flora and fauna are a part of, especially in the pacific rainforests of BC.  While our understanding of the intricacies and resiliency the environment is still maturing, and though our foresight is limited on how our resource and infrastructure development impacts will manifest in years to come; in this day and age, we cannot plead ignorance to the negative impacts that resource and infrastructure development has had thus far.