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Terms of Reference

Recovery Potential Assessment – St. Lawrence Estuary beluga

National Peer Review - National Capital Region

October 16-20, 2023

Halifax, NS

Co-Chairs: Sean MacConnachie and Véronique Lesage


After the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assesses an aquatic species as Threatened, Endangered or Extirpated, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) undertakes a number of actions required to support implementation of the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Many of these actions require scientific information on the current status of SLEB, threats to its survival and recovery, and the feasibility of recovery. Formulation of this scientific advice has typically been developed through a Recovery Potential Assessment (RPA) that is conducted shortly after the COSEWIC assessment. This timing allows for consideration of peer-reviewed scientific analyses into SARA processes including recovery planning.

The St. Lawrence Estuary (SLE) beluga population was first assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) in 1983 and designated as endangered, a status reaffirmed in 1997. The population status was changed to threatened in 2004 following revisions of the COSEWIC listing criteria, but reverted back to endangered in 2014, when new data indicating a population decline were presented.

The SLE beluga population was first listed as "Threatened" under the SARA in 2005, and then with the status of "Endangered" in 2017. An RPA was conducted in 2005 following the 2004 COSEWIC assessment. Critical habitat was defined in 2012 as part of the Beluga Recovery Strategy. In absence of information outside of the period from June to October, Critical Habitat was defined based on information acquired during this period.

An Action Plan focusing specifically on the reduction of the underwater noise threat on cetaceans in the SLE was published in 2020, and a second Action Plan addressing all other threats to the SLE beluga population is currently being developed. A progress report on the SLE Beluga recovery was also developed and published in 2022. Recovery targets for habitat use and population size were set as part of the 2005 RPA; however, a recent analysis deemed the population size recovery target as being unrealistic.

Given the change in population status in 2014, recent advances in knowledge on SLEB threats, seasonal habitat use, population abundance and trends, and given the need to update the 2012 Recovery strategy every 10 years, the Species at Risk Program requested DFO Science to conduct a Recovery Potential Assessment (RPA), following the 2014 DFO RPA guidelines. The advice in the RPA may be used to inform recovery documents, and to support decision making with regards to the issuance of permits or agreements, and the formulation of exemptions and related conditions, as per sections 73, 74, 75, 77, 78 and 83(4) of SARA. The advice in the RPA may also be used to prepare for the reporting requirements of SARA s.55. The advice generated via this process will update and/or consolidate any existing advice regarding SLEB.


To provide up-to-date information, and associated uncertainties, to address the elements of the RPA, with some exceptions; elements listed below will not be addressed during the RPA process, and information obtained by the Species at Risk Program via the following sources:

Biology, Abundance, Distribution and Life History Parameters

Element 1: Summarize the biology of SLEB.

Element 2: Evaluate the recent species trajectory for abundance, distribution and number of populations.

Element 3: Estimate the current or recent life-history parameters for SLEB.

Habitat and Residence Requirements

Element 4: Describe the habitat properties that SLEB needs for successful completion of all life-history stages. Describe the function(s), feature(s), and attribute(s) of the habitat, and quantify by how much the biological function(s) that specific habitat feature(s) provides varies with the state or amount of habitat, including carrying capacity limits, if any.

Element 5: Provide information on the spatial extent of the areas in wildlife specie’s distribution that are likely to have these habitat properties.

Element 6: Quantify the presence and extent of spatial configuration constraints, if any, such as connectivity, barriers to access, etc.

Element 7: Evaluate to what extent the concept of residence applies to the species, and if so, describe the species’ residence.

Threats and Limiting Factors to the Survival and Recovery of SLEB

Element 8: Assess and prioritize the threats to the survival and recovery of SLEB.

Element 9: Identify the activities most likely to threaten (i.e., damage or destroy) the habitat properties identified in elements 4-5 and provide information on the extent and consequences of these activities.

Element 10: Assess any natural factors that will limit the survival and recovery of SLEB.

Element 11: Discuss the potential ecological impacts of the threats identified in element 8 to the target species and other co-occurring species. List the possible benefits and disadvantages to the target species and other co-occurring species that may occur if the threats are abated. Identify existing monitoring efforts for the target species and other co-occurring species associated with each of the threats, and identify any knowledge gaps.

Recovery Targets

Element 12: Propose candidate abundance and distribution target(s) for recovery.

Element 13: Project expected population trajectories over a scientifically reasonable time frame (minimum of 10 years), and trajectories over time to the potential recovery target(s), given current SLEB population dynamics parameters.

Element 14: Provide advice on the degree to which supply of suitable habitat meets the demands of the species both at present and when the species reaches the potential recovery target(s) identified in element 12.

Element 15: Assess the probability that the potential recovery target(s) can be achieved under current rates of population dynamics parameters, and how that probability would vary with different mortality (especially lower) and productivity (especially higher) parameters.

Scenarios for Mitigation of Threats and Alternatives to Activities

Element 16: Develop an inventory of feasible mitigation measures and reasonable alternatives to the activities that are threats to the species and its habitat (as identified in elements 8 and 10).

Element 17: Develop an inventory of activities that could increase the productivity or survivorship parameters (as identified in elements 3 and 15).

Element 18: If current habitat supply may be insufficient to achieve recovery targets (see element 14), provide advice on the feasibility of restoring the habitat to higher values. Advice must be provided in the context of all available options for achieving abundance and distribution targets.

Element 19: Estimate the reduction in mortality rate expected by each of the mitigation measures or alternatives in element 16 and the increase in productivity or survivorship associated with each measure in element 17.

Element 20: Project expected population trajectory (and uncertainties) over a scientifically reasonable time frame and to the time of reaching recovery targets, given mortality rates and productivities associated with the specific measures identified for exploration in element 19. Include those that provide as high a probability of survivorship and recovery as possible for biologically realistic parameter values.

Element 21: Recommend parameter values for population productivity and starting mortality rates and, where necessary, specialized features of population models that would be required to allow exploration of additional scenarios as part of the assessment of economic, social, and cultural impacts in support of the listing process.

Allowable Harm Assessment

Element 22: Evaluate maximum human-induced mortality and habitat destruction that the species can sustain without jeopardizing its survival or recovery.

Expected Publications

Expected Participation



Participation to CSAS peer review meetings is by invitation only.

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