What is an endangered species worth? Threshold costs for protecting imperilled fishes in Canada

by Jess Schultz


Credit: Photobucket

For most of us, buying a car is a big decision.  Before signing on the dotted line, we take some time to consider the pros (convenience, time saved commuting, the ability to pick up the opposite sex…) and cons (gas prices, monthly payments, CO2 emissions perhaps). When the pros outweigh the cons, we buy the car.  In other words, we do a cost-benefit analysis.

This process underlies many, if not all, of our rational decisions.  For example, our decisions as a society to conserve endangered plants and animals also come with cost-benefit analyses.  Tragically, we cannot save everything and still be able to feed ourselves, so we must weigh the pros and cons for each species.  In the case of fish, our decisions are becoming increasingly critical.  Many fish species are in severe decline throughout the world – a frightening situation for both ecology and food security (see Limburg et al. 2011).

So how do we decide which species to protect?  In Canada, imperilled species are protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in a 2-stage process.  First, a group of independent scientists (COSEWIC – the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) conducts a biological assessment and assigns a risk status to the species.  Next, COSEWIC’s recommendation is forwarded to the Minister of the Environment, who conducts a series of economic impact assessments and consultations.  Based on the Minister’s recommendation, the species will be listed as recommended by COSEWIC, not listed, or referred back to COSEWIC for more information. Species listed as ‘Endangered’ or ‘Threatened’ under SARA are legally protected from harm or capture.  (For more information on the listing process, check out the SARA Registry.)


Source: Microsoft Powerpoint Clip Art

This seems like good news, however there have been some problems with this process, particularly for fish.  In the first five years after SARA was implemented, 50% of freshwater fish and all marine fish were rejected for listing, but most amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and plants were protected.  In addition, species that were harvested or had social or economic costs associated with them were much less likely to be protected than those without.  It seemed that the decisions to list fish were motivated more by politics and the potential for fisheries closures than by scientific data.

One striking and controversial example concerns the Porbeagle shark.  Although listed as Endangered by COSEWIC, Porbeagles were denied protection in 2006 due to the existence of a very small fishery. In 2005, only two fishers derived any significant income from Porbeagles, and the shark accounted for only 2% of the income of a single fishing village (see Rudd 2009, Mooers et al. 2010 and others).

Credit: NMFS, E. Hoffmayer, S. Iglésias and R. McAuley, from Wikimedia Commons

This begs the question, so what?  It makes sense that we are less likely to prohibit capture and harm of the species that we harvest, sell and eat.  But while economic and political concerns are no doubt important, they must be balanced with the potential benefits of species protection.  For example, sustaining a viable population that we can fish in the future is important, and species protection also contributes to ecosystem health as a whole (which has its own suite of benefits for humans).  Not to mention, we often value the existence of a species just because we like knowing it’s still out there (called the ‘existence value’).

But where do we draw the line?  When do the costs of protection outweigh the benefits enough to justify denying listing a species as Threatened or Endangered?  We wanted to find out.  Specifically, we wanted to quantify the amount of economic impact that would prevent listing a species, and see whether there was an economic ‘glass ceiling’ beyond which species were no longer protected.

sara-listing-probability-graphsOne important finding was that economic thresholds are different between freshwater and marine fish species (i.e. fish had a 50% chance of being listed if the estimated cost was ~$5 million over ten years for freshwater fish, but only ~$90 000 over ten years for marine fish).  In other words, some freshwater fishes were protected despite high socio-economic costs, but not so for marine fishes.  In fact, any marine species that had any associated cost of listing at all was not protected.  These were normally fish that were harvested, or were caught as bycatch in another fishery.  The problem is that harvest and bycatch are two of the most important threats to North American fish populations.  Therefore, those species most in need of protection are also those that are least likely to be protected. 

Another finding was that the benefits of protecting fish species were rarely quantified in listing decisions.  Where benefits were mentioned, it was almost always to state that there was no benefit to listing.  Chinook salmon was the only species for which a non-zero benefit value was mentioned.  In addition, the level of extinction threat did not affect the likelihood of being listed.  By not considering the benefits, a severe bias is created in the listing process.  After all, if we only looked at the sticker price, insurance rates and maintenance costs in vehicle purchases, there would be far fewer cars on the road.

In general, it seems that our decisions regarding the protection of fish in Canada are largely focused on the short-term, regional consequences of listing rather than long-term impacts.  So while the Species at Risk Act is certainly a step in the right direction for fish conservation, we have more work to do to protect the long-term biodiversity of fish.  We need to ask ourselves not only, ‘what are endangered fish species worth,’ but also ‘what will fish be worth to future generations.’

The full research article can be found here.

Citation: Schultz, J. A., E. S. Darling, I. M. Côté. 2013. What is an endangered species worth? Threshold costs for protecting imperilled fishes in Canada. Marine Policy 42: 125-132.

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