Species Profile

Beluga Whale St. Lawrence Estuary population

Scientific Name: Delphinapterus leucas
Other/Previous Names: Beluga Whale (St. Lawrence River population)
Taxonomy Group: Mammals
COSEWIC Range: Quebec, Atlantic Ocean
COSEWIC Assessment Date and Status Change: November 2014
COSEWIC Status: Endangered
COSEWIC Status Criteria: A2abce+4abce; C2a(ii)
COSEWIC Reason for Designation: This population, endemic to Canada, is at the southernmost limit of the species’ distribution, and is reproductively and geographically isolated from other populations. This population of a long-lived, slowly reproducing species was severely reduced by hunting, which continued until 1979. Since population monitoring surveys began in the 1980s, the total population size has remained at around 1000 individuals -- less than 20% of the population size in the late 1800s or early 1900s. The major threats currently affecting this population include pathogens, toxic algal blooms, pollution, noise disturbance, and other human intrusions and disturbance.  The impacts of these threats are likely amplified by the low number of mature individuals remaining in the population.  Since the mid-2000s, the population has shown evidence of major demographic changes including increased neonate mortality and a decline in the proportion of young individuals in the population. These trends, together with past and ongoing habitat degradation, and projected increases in threats, suggest that the status of this population has worsened and is at considerably greater risk than when it was previously assessed by COSEWIC in 2004.
COSEWIC History of Status Designation: Designated Endangered in April 1983. Status re-examined and confirmed in April 1997. Status re-examined and designated Threatened in May 2004. Status re-examined and designated Endangered in November 2014.
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Endangered
Date of Listing (yyyy-mm-dd): 2005-07-14

Please note that this information is provided for general information purposes only. For the most up to date and accurate list of species listed under the Species at Risk Act, please see the Justice Laws Website.

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Image of Beluga Whale

Beluga Whale Photo 1
Beluga Whale Photo 2

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Description

The Beluga is a pure white, toothed whale with a prominent, rounded forehead. Its thick skin and lack of dorsal fin are believed to be adaptations to cold, icy waters. Its close relative, the Narwhal, shares these features. Compared to other eastern North American White Whales, the Beluga is medium sized. Females average 3.5 m in length, while males average 3.6 m, sometimes exceeding 4 m. Newborns are brown or slate-grey and average 1.6 m in length, 78 kg in weight. They become bluish-grey as they mature, then progressively lighten in colour, fading to white after 6 years of age. Most females mature sexually while still light grey. Males become white before maturing. Older males have a marked upward curve at the tip of their flippers.

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Distribution and Population

This population occurs mainly in the St. Lawrence River estuary: with main summer concentration centered around the Saguenay River mouth extending from Île aux Coudres, about 100 km downstream from Quebec City, to Bic in the estuary, and up the Saguenay River to Saint-Fulgence. Little is known about winter distribution but there appears to be a slight increase in the use areas a little downstream. As many as 15,000 Belugas were removed from the St. Lawrence River system from 1880 to 1950, when the 400-year Beluga fishery was most intensive. The most recent photographic aerial survey analysis has indicated no significant increase in numbers of belugas from 1988 to 2000. Recent population estimates for that period, corrected for submerged animals and rounded to the nearest 100, range from 900 to 1300.

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Habitat

Belugas in general occur only in seasonally ice-covered parts of Arctic and sub-Arctic seas. The St. Lawrence Beluga's distribution represents the southern limit of the species' worldwide range. Their habitat is ice-covered in winter. The species inhabits warmer, shallow, turbid waters of Arctic river mouths in the summer. The southernmost beluga population of the St Lawrence lives in a heavily traveled maritime route. There, its range has been reduced significantly and the remaining belugas continue to face anthropogenic challenges, such as increasing noise, loss of habitat, and pollution.

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Biology

The ages of belugas are determined by counting annual growth layer groups (GLGs) in the tissues of their teeth. However, there is current uncertainty as to whether one or two of these growth layers represent a year of growth. It had been generally accepted that two growth layers represented a one-year growth, but new scientific evidence published in 2006 suggests that one growth layer actually represents one year of growth. The following description of life history is based on the newer assumption (of one growth layer group per year), while values under the previous assumption of counting two growth layer groups per year are given in brackets: Males reach sexual maturity at 12 to 14 years (6 to 7 years for 2 GLGs), while females become sexually mature from 8 to 14 years (4 to 7 years for 2 GLGs) of age. Belugas breed about every three years, between April and June. A female gives birth to one calf (about 1.5 m long) every three years around July or August, after a gestation period of 14.5 months. Belugas are long-lived mammals with mean life spans in the range of 30 to 60 years (15 to 30 years for 2 GLGs), although they can live much longer. Results from aging of beluga whale jaws in the Eastern Beaufort Sea have identified whales reaching the age of 114 years (57 years for 2 GLGs), with many harvested whales of this population estimated to be in their 80s to 100s (40s to 50s for 2 GLGs). The species feeds on almost 50 different invertebrate and fish species including squid, tube worms, caplin, Greenland and Atlantic Cod. Belugas are at the top of the food chain.

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Threats

Potential limiting factors include habitat loss or alteration by dams on rivers draining into the St. Lawrence River; finite food sources; and competition for food from other species. Noise disturbance from human activity like boating, whale watching and shipping, plus global warming and environmental contamination could also be harmful.

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Protection

Federal Protection

The Beluga Whale, St. Lawrence Estuary population, is protected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available in the Species at Risk Act: A Guide.

The Beluga Whale, St. Lawrence Estuary population, is protected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available in the Species at Risk Act: A Guide. The Fisheries Act, Canada Shipping Act and Canadian Environmental Protection Act are the principal legislative instruments governing the release of toxic substances into aquatic habitats. No legislation limits marine traffic effects on marine mammals. Marine mammal regulations of the Fisheries Act prohibit deliberate harassment. The St Lawrence River Beluga Protection Regulations of the Fisheries Act, prohibit the hunting, killing, chasing or willful disturbance of Belugas. The Canadian Wildlife Act authorizes the federal Minister of the Environment to create National Wildlife Areas, including marine protected areas out to the 200 mile limit. The Canada Oceans Act may also permit the creation of protected areas. Either act could protect St. Lawrence Beluga habitat. Guidelines established by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans identify critical sections of the species' summer range for the information of boaters. Both Quebec's Environmental Quality Act and Wildlife Conservation and Development Act give the province some power to protect the St. Lawrence River environment.

Provincial and Territorial Protection

To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.

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Recovery Initiatives

Status of Recovery Planning

Recovery Strategies :

Name Recovery Strategy for the Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas) - St. Lawrence Estuary population
Status Final posting on SAR registry

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Recovery Team

Beluga Whale (St. Lawrence Estuary Population) Recovery Team

  • Species at Risk Program / Programme des espèces en péril - Chair/Contact - Fisheries and Oceans Canada
    Phone: 877-775-0848  Send Email

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Documents

PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

102 record(s) found.

COSEWIC Status Reports

Response Statements

  • Response Statement - Beluga Whale, St. Lawrence Estuary population (2004-10-22)

    The population was severely reduced by hunting, which continued until 1979. High contaminant loads may have also contributed to the population decline. Aerial surveys since 1973 suggest that the decline has ceased, but do not provide clear evidence of a significant increase in numbers. Levels of many contaminants remain high in beluga tissues. The whales and their habitat are threatened by contaminants, vessel traffic, and industrialization of the St. Lawrence watershed.
  • Response Statement - Beluga Whale, St. Lawrence Estuary population (2015-12-23)

    This population, endemic to Canada, is at the southernmost limit of the species' distribution, and is reproductively and geographically isolated from other populations. This population of a long-lived, slowly reproducing species was severely reduced by hunting, which continued until 1979. Since population monitoring surveys began in the 1980s, the total population size has remained at around 1000 individuals -- less than 20% of the population size in the late 1800s or early 1900s. The major threats currently affecting this population include pathogens, toxic algal blooms, pollution, noise disturbance, and other human intrusions and disturbance. The impacts of these threats are likely amplified by the low number of mature individuals remaining in the population. Since the mid-2000s, the population has shown evidence of major demographic changes including increased neonate mortality and a decline in the proportion of young individuals in the population. These trends, together with past and ongoing habitat degradation, and projected increases in threats, suggest that the status of this population has worsened and is at considerably greater risk than when it was previously assessed by COSEWIC in 2004.

Recovery Strategies

  • Recovery Strategy for the Beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) St. Lawrence Estuary Population in Canada (2012-03-27)

    The beluga is a small, toothed whale of the Monodontidae family, found in the northern hemisphere and adapted to Arctic and subarctic conditions. The species is characterized by the absence of a dorsal fin, a thick skin and tough dorsal ridge (used to break ice), and a rounded structure, called a melon, on the dorsal surface of the head, which is filled with lipids and facilitates echolocation. Adults are distinguished by their white skin. An adult beluga can weigh up to 1,900 kg and grow to between 2.6 and 4.5 m in length, the female adult attaining only 80% of the male's length, or up to 3.5 m (Vladykov, 1944; Lesage and Kingsley, 1998; COSEWIC, 2004). 2011-10-04 - We modified the legend of Figure 7 to better reflect the status of the projected Marine Protected Area of Manicouagan. The web link to the Best Practices Guide (footnote 12) was deleted because it is no longer valid.

Action Plans

Orders

  • Order Acknowledging Receipt of the Assessments Done Pursuant to Subsection 23(1) of the Act (2004-10-19)

    The Order acknowledges receipt by the Governor in Council of the assessments of the status of wildlife species done pursuant to subsection 23(1) of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The purpose of SARA is to prevent wildlife species from being extirpated or becoming extinct, to provide for the recovery of wildlife species that are extirpated, endangered or threatened as a result of human activity and to manage species of special concern to prevent them from becoming endangered or threatened.
  • Order Acknowledging Receipt of the Assessments Done Pursuant to Subsection 23(1) of the Act (volume 150, number 17, 2016) (2016-08-24)

    His Excellency the Governor General in Council, on the recommendation of the Minister of the Environment, acknowledges receipt, on the making of this Order, of the assessments done pursuant to subsection 23(1) of the Species at Risk Act by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) with respect to the species set out in the annexed schedule.
  • Order Amending Schedule 1 to the Species at Risk Act (volume 151, number 9, 2017) (2017-05-03)

    His Excellency the Governor General in Council, on the recommendation of the Minister of the Environment, pursuant to subsection 27(1) of the Species at Risk Act, makes the annexed Order Amending Schedule 1 to the Species at Risk Act.
  • Order Amending Schedules 1 to 3 to the Species at Risk Act (volume 139, number 15, 2005) (2005-07-27)

    The Minister of the Environment is recommending, pursuant to section 27 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA), that 43 species be added to Schedule 1, the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. This recommendation is based on scientific assessments by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and on consultations with governments, Aboriginal peoples, wildlife management boards, stakeholders and the Canadian public.
  • Order Extending the Time for the Assessment of the Status of Wildlife Species (2006-06-14)

    The time provided for the assessment of the status of the wildlife species set out in the schedule is extended for 3 years from the day on which section 14 of the Species at Risk Act comes into force.

COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2004 (2004-09-16)

    2004 Annual Report to the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council (CESCC) from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2014-2015 (2015-11-20)

    Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), the foremost function of COSEWIC is to "assess the status of each wildlife species considered by COSEWIC to be at risk and, as part of the assessment, identify existing and potential threats to the species". COSEWIC held two Wildlife Species Assessment Meetings in this reporting year (October, 2014 to September, 2015) from November 23 to November 28, 2014 and from April 27 to May 1, 2015. During the current reporting period, COSEWIC assessed the status or reviewed the classification of 56 wildlife species. The wildlife species assessment results for the 2014-2015 reporting period include the following: Extinct: 0 Extirpated: 1 Endangered: 21 Threatened: 11 Special Concern: 21 Data Deficient: 1 Not at Risk: 1 Total: 56 Of the 56 wildlife species examined, COSEWIC reviewed the classification of 40 that had been previously assessed. The review of classification for 24 of those wildlife species resulted in a confirmation of the same risk status as the previous assessment.

Permits and Related Agreements

  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO QUE MM04 2015), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2015-06-01)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO QUE MM05 2015), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2015-06-01)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO QUE MM06 2015), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2015-06-01)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO QUE MM07 2015), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2015-06-01)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO QUE MM08 2015), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2015-06-01)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO QUE MM09 2015), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2015-06-01)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO QUE MM14 2015), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2015-06-01)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO-18-PNCR-00001), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2018-06-18)

    The activities involve disentangling whales (including North Atlantic Right Whales, Blue Whale, Northern Bottlenose Whale, Beluga Whale, Fin Whale) , Sea Turtles (including Leatherback Sea Turtles and Loggerhead Sea Turtles), Dolphins and Porpoises from fishing gear and lines. The rescue activities include repeated close approaches at sea in small vessels, physically interacting with an individual for the purpose of securing, detangling, re-floating, freeing the individuals from gears, including fishing weirs, using standard protocols. In addition, activities involving dead animals include collection of biological information and the transfer of the animals to a location where necropsies can be conducted. There will be no tissue sample collection from live animals or tagging of live animals.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO-QUE-MM-03-2014), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2014-06-10)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO-QUE-MM-04-2014), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2014-06-10)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO-QUE-MM-05-2014), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2014-06-10)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO-QUE-MM-06-2014), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2014-06-10)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO-QUE-MM-07-2014), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2014-06-10)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO-QUE-MM-08-2014), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2014-06-10)

    1) Disentanglement and freeing of marine mammals caught in fishing gear. 2) Deterrence, live capture, transportation, relocation and release of stray marine mammals when they are threatened by human activities or cause public safety issues. 3) Transportation or possession of marine mammal carcasses or body parts within Quebec's geographic boundaries.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO-QUE-MM-12-2014), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2014-07-06)

    Photo-identification surveys and biopsies will be conducted, from a vessel, to investigate the behavioral ecology of the St. Lawrence beluga. These activities aim at monitoring the biodemographic variables of the population, understanding social organization and reproductive strategies of the beluga, deepening knowledge of habitat use and studying linking with contaminant buildup and observed pathologies.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#DFO-QUE-MM12-2015), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2015-06-18)

    Photo-identification surveys and biopsies will be conducted, from a vessel, to investigate the behavioral ecology and preferred habitat of the St. Lawrence beluga. These activities are part of long-term monitoring and aim at monitoring the biodemographic variables of the beluga population, understanding social organization and reproductive strategies of the beluga, deepening knowledge of habitat use and studying links between contaminant buildup and observed pathologies. Results could help identify threats, critical habitats and develop protection and conservation strategies for the species.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#MPO-QUE-MM02-2016), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2016-05-15)

    Photo-identification surveys and biopsies will be conducted, from a vessel, to investigate the behavioral ecology and preferred habitat of the St. Lawrence beluga. These activities are part of long-term monitoring and aim at monitoring the biodemographic variables of the beluga population, understanding social organization and reproductive strategies of the beluga, deepening knowledge of habitat use and studying links between contaminant buildup and observed pathologies. Results could help identify threats, critical habitats and develop protection and conservation strategies for the species.
  • >> See more Permits and Related Agreements documents

Consultation Documents

  • Consultation on Amending the List of Species under the Species at Risk Act: November 2004 (2004-11-23)

    The Government of Canada proclaimed the Species at Risk Act (SARA) on June 5, 2003 as part of its strategy for the protection of wildlife species at risk. Attached to the act is Schedule 1, the list of the species that receive protection under SARA, hereinafter referred to as the 'SARA list'. Canadians are invited to comment on whether all or some of the species included in this document should be added to the SARA list.
  • Consultation Workbook Regarding the Addition of the St Lawrence Population of Beluga to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk under the Species at Risk Act (2004-10-25)

    Your opinion is being sought to assist the government of Canada in making an informed decision on whether to add the Beluga Whale (St-Lawrence population) to the Schedule 1 (the List of Wildlife Species at Risk) of the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Your input on the impacts of adding this population of Beluga to the List is important. This workbook has been developed to give you an opportunity to provide Fisheries and Oceans Canada with your feedback, advice, and other comments regarding adding this population of beluga whale to Schedule 1 of SARA (Schedule 1 identifies which species are legally protected under SARA).

Critical Habitat Descriptions in the Canada Gazette

Critical Habitat Orders

  • Critical Habitat of the Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas) St. Lawrence Estuary Population Order (2016-05-14)

    In 2004, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) classified the beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas), St. Lawrence Estuary (SLE) population as threatened. This population was reassessed in 2014 by COSEWIC as Endangered. These assessments were based upon the best available information on the biological status of the population, including scientific knowledge and aboriginal traditional knowledge. A “threatened species” is defined under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) as a wildlife species that is likely to become an endangered species if nothing is done to reverse the factors leading to its extirpation or extinction.
  • Critical Habitat of the Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas) St. Lawrence Estuary Population Order (2017-12-13)

    Under SARA, the critical habitat of aquatic species identified in a recovery strategy must be legally protected within 180 days after the posting of the final recovery strategy on the Species at Risk Public Registry. Critical habitat not mentioned in subsection 58(2) must be protected either by the application of the prohibition against the destruction of critical habitat in subsection 58(1), or by provisions in, or measures under, SARA or any other Act of Parliament, including agreements under section 11 of SARA. It is important to note that in order for another federal law to be used to legally protect critical habitat, it must provide an equivalent level of legal protection of critical habitat as would be afforded through subsection 58(1) of SARA, failing which, the Minister must make an Order under subsections 58(4) and (5) of SARA. Therefore, this Critical Habitat of the Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas) St. Lawrence Estuary Population Order is intended to satisfy the obligation to legally protect critical habitat by triggering the prohibition under SARA against the destruction of any part of the species’ critical habitat.

Recovery Document Posting Plans

  • Recovery Document Posting Plan - Fisheries and Oceans Canada - Fiscal Year 2016-2017 (2018-09-28)

    Under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), the competent Minister(s) must prepare a recovery strategy within one year of listing a species on Schedule 1 of SARA as endangered and within two years of listing a species as extirpated or threatened. A management plan must be prepared within three years for a species listed as special concern. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is accountable for 111 of the 518 species listed under SARA. As of February 2016, proposed recovery strategies, management plans and action plans for 57 of those species have not yet been posted to the Species at Risk Public Registry. An additional 23 aquatic species have proposed management or action plans coming due in the future. The following outlines the Department’s plan for posting proposed documents for 64 species on the Species at Risk Public Registry. The Department has a plan to post recovery strategies for 9 species, management plans for 13 species, and action plans for 42 species over the next year. Original publication of the Recovery Document Posting Plan: 2016-05-02
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