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Canada’s Species at Risk Rarely Recover: The Story Behind the PLOS ONE Article

Orca_Andy WrightPost By Caroline Fox & Brett Favaro

Most scientists are passionate about their work, but enthusiasm can sometimes be hard to maintain over a long project. What if we could inject the fun back into science—take away the emotional baggage of long, drawn-out research projects, and give scientists a chance to approach a question they’ve never considered before?

This was the idea behind the ‘Research Derby’—an intense event that gives researchers the chance to ask and answer a question relevant to conservation biology, ecology, or evolution. This event was modeled on ‘hackathons’ in the IT world—small teams lock themselves away and produce the best product they can given limited time. After the event, all participants focus on one of the teams’ research questions and develop it into a full publication over the next year.

Last winter, we ran a Derby at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. We brought together undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows from multiple departments. The two of us, both postdoctoral fellows at the time, landed on the same team. Over the two-day event, we brainstormed potential research topics and eventually decided on a topic that interested all of us—the effectiveness of species conservation in Canada. Specifically, we decided to examine aspects of Canada’s endangered species recoveries, combining Caroline’s expertise about Canada’s endangered species legislation with the Derby team’s collective aim to look at the overall picture of species conservation in Canada.

The process of species protection in Canada is far from straightforward. For a given species, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) first provides an assessment, which is then forwarded to the federal government to decide whether or not to list that species under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). Once listed under SARA, a series of legal obligations for protection set in; for example, for endangered species, critical habitat must be identified where possible in the Recovery Plan.

Up to 2013 we found: of 369 species examined more than once by COSEWIC, 86% had become more endangered or failed to improve.[1] We also examined whether being protected by SARA was associated with improved COSEWIC assessment outcomes relative to unlisted species—the answer was “no,” unfortunately. Further, we found that for more than half of eligible SARA-listed species, critical habitat had not been fully identified; without identification, this habitat cannot be fully protected.

This paper proved to be highly impactful. Discussed in Canada’s parliament (twice), passed around government departments, and widely covered in the media, our findings have been broadly disseminated to decision makers, other conservation scientists, and the general public. From a 24-hr research event to publication in less than a year, this was a rapid and influential scientific effort that resulted from a unique collaboration. While the event was only 24 hours, we spent several months after the Derby checking our data, refining our methods, and developing our quick-and-dirty findings into a mature product fit for a peer-reviewed, open-access, and widely read publication. All Derby research members participated on each stage of the research, but we each used our strengths and collaboratively developed our final product. And most importantly—it was a lot of fun from start to finish.

Dr. Brett Favaro is a Liber Ero postdoctoral fellow, and a Research Scientist at the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland. His mission is simple: do science that informs the way we manage our natural resources, especially biodiversity. Primarily a marine biologist, Brett’s research examines ways to make commercial fishing more sustainable. However, since many conservation problems are inherently political, he studies environmental policy as well. Brett completed both his Bachelor’s of Science and Ph.D. at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada.

Dr. Caroline Fox is a postdoctoral fellow with Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Department of Geography at the University of Victoria. Her research interests revolve around marine-terrestrial interactions, marine predator ecology and efforts to measure and mitigate human impacts in coastal ecosystems. As a big-picture ecologist and conservation scientist, her research spans a diversity of coastal ecosystems and taxa, including kelp forests, seabirds and black bears. Caroline completed her B.Sc. and Ph.D. at the University of Victoria and M.Sc. at Case Western Reserve University.

[1] Favaro B, Claar DC, Fox CH, Freshwater C, Holden JJ, et al. (2014) Trends in Extinction Risk for Imperiled Species in Canada. PLOS ONE 9(11): e113118. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0113118

Image: Orca by Andy Wright

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