By Marie Brown 18/03/2016 17


Over the past several weeks I’ve unpacked the essence of Vanishing Nature, pointing out where the fundamental drivers of the loss of nature appear throughout our economy and institutions.

The worrisome state of our national conservation agency (DOC) is a manifestation of politically sanctioned agency capture promoting low priority to safeguarding nature over competing government priorities. On private land, obsessions with short-term private profit irrespective of public costs have diminished and degraded the commons without the recompense for the public that natural justice demands.

Socialisation of environmental costs has affected freshwater ecosystems most severely, and the muddled regulatory context for freshwater means even if there are solutions, they are rarely adopted. Water quality and freshwater ecosystem intactness are pretty much commensurate with its distance from humans.

Out to sea, our stunning marine environment bears the brunt of regulatory and institutional failures both on land and at sea. An opaque governance regime and political disinterest in all but the economic offerings of the sea will ensure that the marine environment continues to degrade without disruptive innovation. It’s bloody dismal.

The good news is that just as losing biodiversity is a choice, so too is saving it.

Communities dig in, but they’re unfairly burdened with forgotten statutory mandates and a dearth of secure funding and support. Regional and district councils increasingly embrace their biodiversity mandates (none too soon) and the staff of DOC do their level best within a tough political environment. The public clearly care, but their attentions and thus outcomes are often misdirected and chaotic from a conservation point of view. There’s energy, but we need a game plan to bring focus and so achieve real improvement.

In Vanishing Nature, we said that solutions come in many forms and exist primarily at three levels. At the grass roots, there are the practical solutions (e.g. pest control, biosecurity interventions, captive breeding innovations, restoration planting) that are politically ‘sexy’, everyone wants them but they’re just time and resources-limited. We need loads more of them and fast.

Tactical solutions are the next level up – they seek to balance the public interest with the much more powerful private interests that want to harm nature for private gain. Law does this. While a bunch of our laws are pretty solid (aside from gaping implementation gaps), some laws are basically derelict.

The Marine Reserves Act 1971 is an example. The Act can’t protect anything beyond the territorial sea; the purpose for reserves is very narrow and; the Act fails to recognise the Treaty of Waitangi. The Proposed Marine Protected Areas Act also excludes the EEZ, waters down absolute marine protection and does a very ordinary job of recognising Maori interests.  One could be forgiven for thinking that the proposed Act was designed to protect vested private and industry interests from the public interest in a healthy marine environment.

Private interests capture governments so that legislation is weak and ambiguous and effectively protects the interests of those who need to be regulated instead of the public interest.  High principles and strong rhetoric to conceal weak and ambiguous legislation become the norm despite the best efforts of NGOs that dig in and fight for more effective laws because they do matter.

Vanishing Nature argued for strategic solutions – disruptive things that affect powerful economic drivers that harm nature. In particular, solutions that give vested interests a reason to do the right thing for the public interest in the environment (and thus free up agencies to do their job) and – most importantly – raise loads more money to rescue our natural heritage. Strategic solutions are the game-changers that align private, government and public interests toward a particular outcome: an outcome that works for nature and for the future public – our children and grandchildren.

This takes political courage, overwhelming public support and some systemic, long term thinking by those involved in environmental advocacy at all levels. It’s too easy just to focus on daily issues and battles instead of the systemic drivers that create the issues and the need to do battle at all.

Strategic solutions need to be locked in during periods of high support for conservation (it waxes and wanes over time) and they need to be good enough so that vested interests and their politicians have little incentive to roll them back. Here are the ones we set out, but there are more I’m sure…

Partnerships – are a strategic solution but only if they’re done right. Sharing the immense load of conservation across different interests of different capabilities can help to generate better outcomes for nature. Key tripping points are when the partnerships divert precious agency resources to low priority work or where the external partner has more power than the other and may abuse that by reorienting the partnership to suit their own agenda.  For example, DOC needs to be particularly careful lest its partnerships with industry constrain its ability to advocate for the protection of our natural heritage from the adverse effects of their activities.

Environmental Protection Fund – New Zealand makes piles of money from tourists and other users of the natural environment (and could stand to make piles more), but hardly any finds its way back to biodiversity conservation. We recommended launching a national endowment fund to gather impact investment funding, tourism income and other donations to distribute to the areas of need for conservation that exceed the capability of agencies  The fund would have to be strictly additional and complementary to  – and NOT a substitute for – publicly funded conservation.

Environmental Consumption Tax and Rebate System – is a novel institution that integrates economic, taxation and environmental policy by taxing harm to nature and providing rebates and support to those acting in the interests of nature. Corrective environmental taxes might seem extreme, but the present state of things is fast eroding the biodiversity and ecosystem services upon which our lives and welfare depend. Compared with the status quo, kicking our economy into shape and ensuring that polluters and damagers pay the true cost of their exploits seems really rather logical.

Payments for Ecosystem Services – landowners are paid to maintain and restore nature. Payment is commensurate with the benefit of their actions. Present discussions over compensation for landowners with sites of ecological significance highlights how important this prospect is to those otherwise disinterested in doing their bit for more than private economic reasons. Problematic is that these approaches are pretty expensive and financing the fund usually necessitates a polluter pays approach. Voices in support of compensation tend to quieten down when the coin flips to ideas about who would provide the funds for these payments…

National conversation on biodiversity – to build public support for biodiversity protection and to capitalise on that with implementing some of the changes above, we need to fire up the political furnaces and put nature on centre stage. This has happened before. The New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy arose from a comprehensive and rigorous public process, was backed with funding, was even carefully reviewed and evaluated a few years on – and it set a goal to (among other things) “halt the decline of indigenous biodiversity by 2020”.

But we haven’t yet even slowed the decline. Biodiversity loss continues unabated and, in fact, has accelerated since the Strategy appeared in drier, lowland environments. The chances of halting it by 2020 are pretty slim, even with disruptive systemic change to our environmental and economic institutions.

A refreshed public process to set a course, be designed to meet DOC and council’s existing statutory commitments, incorporate the more recent Aichi targets and more effectively engage the general public is overdue. Without re-engaging the public in a meaningful discourse, modernising our approaches to biodiversity protection and implementing strategic and tactical changes we are unlikely to be able to maintain the public interest in a healthy environment that sustains a flourishing native biota.

Nearly 30 solutions inclusive of the above are set out in Vanishing Nature. Next week we draw it all together to set out a vision for biodiversity conservation and review progress so far on recommendations.

In March 2015, the Environmental Defence Society published a critical analysis of biodiversity management in New Zealand in a book titled Vanishing Nature: facing New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis. This blog series draws out the key issues. If you’d like to buy the book follow this link.

Featured image: Flickr CC, Loïc Lagarde.


17 Responses to “Part 8: Solving the biodiversity crisis”

  • The phrase “halt the decline of indigenous biodiversity” is unclear in meaning. If it means putting a halt to extinction, then there are so few genuine cases of impending extinction to worry about that it is really a small issue. However, I don’t think that we can ever stop native species from further decline, unless we put a halt to habitat modification, and that seems somewhat of a done deal already (conservation estate). For a country that is “growing” (the number one priority of this and all governments, rightly or wrongly), it seems inevitable that some habitat modification will continue.

    • Regarding, ‘there are so few genuine cases of impending extinction to worry about that it is really a small issue’ – NZ has the highest proportion of threatened species in the world. Threatened species are those at imminent risk of extinction and we have plenty of work to do on that front. Suggest you look at Bradshaw 2010, the abstract is available here: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0010440#s5 . Part of the reason it is so imperiled is it’s sheer vulnerability – an island archipelago with loads of deep time endemic species, rapidly and voraciously colonised. But it’s hardly an unavoidable situation to be in.
      Part of halting the decline – as you rightly point out – is reducing habitat loss and degradation. While some measure of this at a local scale for development purposes is likely to always need to occur, the way it is carried out and what is required of the perpetrator when it occurs can reduce it’s overall impact on biodiversity significantly. Our follow-up publication to Vanishing Nature (Pathways to prosperity) addresses this issue specifically (http://www.eds.org.nz/keep-in-touch/blog/2016/pathways-to-prosperity-new-eds-publication/)

  • “NZ has the highest proportion of threatened species in the world”

    Utter nonsense! The Bradshaw paper is crap. The environment here in NZ is relatively stable compared with the large scale deforestation that continues in the tropics, driven by big business.

    Name some NZ species facing imminent extinction? Not many, I bet, as a proportion of total native biodiversity. Anyway, it all depends on definitions. What exactly is an “imminent risk of extinction”?

  • Well, I know most about terrestrial incertebrates, and I can tell you for a fact (though I can’t easily prove it) that the current threatened species rankings for terrestrial inverts are highly problematic. The beetles were done by a bunch of people who simply don’t know what they are talking about. Many of the rankings just don’t make any sense, like the ripiphorid beetles being classified as “nationally critical”! These ripiphorids are just hard to find. They are fully winged and widespread, but narrowly seasonal as adults, which gives only a narrow window of opportunity to find them (finding larvae would require breaking open rotting logs, but the beetles are too thin on the ground for this to be feasible, though there is no evidence that they are declining, just naturally sparse). Another problem with the rankings is that some bright spark got the brilliant idea that a herbivorous invert, specific to a particular host, should have the same threat status as the host plant. The major flaw in this logic is that the threat status of a plant is for the plant in the wild, whereas many of these plants are common in cultivation and the invert often doesn’t care!

    I don’t think that I need to prove that the NZ environment is relatively stable. The onus is on you to convincingly show that it isn’t and to name species which you think are in imminent danger of extinction.

  • PS: Obviously I meant invertebrates, not incertebrates! Anyway, I don’t deny that there are a few species in decline, just by no means enough to make for a “biodiversity crisis” in NZ. For as long as the major native forests etc. remain as they are, the overwhelming majority of NZ’s biodiversity is safe enough.

    • Thanks Stephen (and Bryce!).
      I’m fairly comfortable that we have made the case for a biodiversity crisis and that there is significant and systemic decline in ecosystem extent and condition throughout New Zealand. Where there are areas of recovery, they are offset by continuing background decline. Where there are data gaps there is uncertainty – but the precautionary principle should prevail even then. The burden of proof should be on the side of those vested interests degrading natural capital.

      I do hope that you engage with Vanishing Nature at some stage if you’ve not already.

      Extinction threat – setting aside the fact that you take a taxa-narrow view of threat, and a poorly understood group at that – is only one metric of ecosystem decline and loss of biodiversity. In fact it’s the final one and relatively unhelpful. More telling is the scale of ecosystem loss still continuing – dryland areas, wetlands, lowland forest and any number of other ecosystems are in trouble and the lack of management and sympathetic governance.
      So, I am comfortable with our assertion and I am concentrating on using VN as a basis to address the strategic, tactical and practical implications for nature. For example, invertebrates are rarely considered in assessing the impacts of development activity; DOC, CRIs and universities hobble along on limited research funding to understand species and ecosystems better; there are few penalties for harming nature; weak governance does not bode well for halting the decline of biodiversity (as in curtailing the ongoing decline widely described in the scientific literature) and many other things that require constructive engagement and advocacy. That’s where I put my energy and where I will focus.

      • Sorry Stephen I cannot agree with you at all. The threat rankings undoubtedly overestimate the risk to some inverts, but they without question dramatically underestimate the threat to many, MANY others. For example, even something as prominent as the largest insect in southern New Zealand, a very conspicuous weta that has no defenses against rodents, has vanished from Fiordland, is rapidly approaching extinction in Otago, is equally poorly in Canterbury, and has only a few seemingly (but trend entirely unknown) okay populations in Westland, yet has been classified as “not threatened” when it is clearly at risk of vanishing entirely. Numerous other weta and grasshoppers have rankings that do not reflect anything like their actual status, and that is just one group of high-interest insects. Most inverts are tiny and inconspicuous so get a lot less attention. And then there is the problem of the ones we don’t even know about because the massive amount of habitat change that has (and is continuing to) taken place in NZ has rendered them extinct or highly localized before we even discover them. And its not just inverts, our most diverse terrestrial vertebrates, the lizards, have a terrible record of decline with a whole series of species now reduced to only one or two populations each. With ever-changing farming trends and our terrible record of declining water quality across rural NZ, you have right there a fundamentally unstable ecology, let alone the ongoing changes in forests and the alpine.

  • Stephen, I can Powelliphanta augusta (it’s in an ice cream container waiting to die out) the ones that have been released into wild have never been found again… but 15years ago we had no clue that it lived there and was only found there… Now tell me if I am wrong, but we are mining and clearing land in New Zealand all the time correct? So there would be species in danger/going extinct! You’re talking about species you know about, I found an undescribed species of Uliodon (yet to be described, we know nothing about it) how do we know it’s not found elsewhere in New Zealand? What about Thambotricha vates? Robert only has a hand full in his collection, I have seen 7 this year, but we still know nothing about it, what it feeds on etc etc… So I could sit here and argue that it could be endangered and going extinct… the truth is we don’t know as we don’t have data to show that, I don’t have scientific data but I could promise you, we are losing invert species every year, species we haven’t discovered or named correctly! Stoats diet is 40% + of inverts, then there is rats, mice, birds, wasps (a wasp nest with over a 1000 wasps would be taking 500-1000 insects a day to feed their larva, this happens every day, all summer long!
    So put aside the species we have data and know about and start thinking about species we haven’t discovered yet, we both know a lot of inverts are habitat based and some to a certain host plant, if the host plant is only found in the wild (say for argument sake, South island, the species that depends on it will go extinct. If there is garden variety in North Island that won’t do bugger all for the species that depend on the plant in the south island… correct?

  • Well, you are the one who mentioned “biodiversity loss”! If you take terrestrial inverts out of the equation as being “too poorly known”, then you have taken out most of the biodiversity! So, what I am saying is that I see no convincing evidence of a “biodiversity crisis” in NZ. Maybe a few birds and plants are in decline, but 90+% of NZ biodiversity is not known to be in significant decline. In fact, most of the larger native forests are still relatively poorly surveyed for their biodiversity values, and species can survive in densities low enough to be difficult to detect, but high enough to probably not be threatened. See for example Morgan-Richards et al. (2016).

    So, by all means lobby for more conservation funding, etc., but I object to using alarmist tactics like claims of “biodiversity crisis”, when NZ is relatively stable compared with many other places in the world which really do have a crisis. I don’t see how you can make meaningful assertions about NZ biodiversity without including the single biggest component, i.e. terrestrial inverts. The extinction of a bird species is no worse than the extinction of a beetle or worm or whatever species.

    REFERENCES
    Morgan-Richards, M. et al. 2016: Identification of a rare gecko from North Island New Zealand, and genetic assessment of its probable origin: A novel mainland conservation priority? Journal of herpetology, 50(1): 77-86. doi: 10.1670/13-128

  • My reply above was to Marie.

    Bryce: You are talking about a mere handful of the tens of thousands of native species in NZ. This does not make for a “biodiversity crisis”. I can give you a few more examples of critically threatened species, but it is still only a negligible fraction of the whole biodiversity.

    Tony: You too are generalising from a handful of examples to an overall “biodiversity crisis”! Also, extinctions which have already taken place are not relevant to the issue. The first few decades after European colonisation of NZ represent the major wave of extinctions and forest clearance. Now things are relatively stable.

  • I must say that I have some discomfort over the analysis presented in these blogs.
    First, most parts of the world humans have had tens-of-thousands of years to wipe out biodiversity. One of the major reasons we have so much threatened biodiversity compared to the rest of the world, is they’ve already wiped out a lot of theirs to begin with. It’s not that they’re good compared to us. It’s their much greater head-start.
    Second, due to some unique evolutionary parameters, NZ ecosystems and biodiversity is extraordinarily vulnerable to invasive species. The problems we face are the result of long past *historical* decisions to release a whole range of extinction-machines into the environment- rabbits, possums, German wasps, rats, deer, mustelids etc. I realise it is popular to blame the loss of biodiversity on the perfidy of farmers and recent governments, but I’ve not seen any new eradication technology that will permit us to wipe out these invasives.
    Third, for all the purported complicity in the private sector in the destruction of our biodiversity, we have allocated over 30% of our terrestrial area as reserves. That’s greatly in excess of the IUCN 10% target and (I think) 5% current global average (accepting that the reserves are biased towards lands of little economic use). Much of the conservation problem nonetheless, comes back to invasive species, for which no technology exists that makes it economic to eradicate. Given eradication costs tend to rise exponentially, achieving our national biodiversity goals means we need either a) a miracle or b) new and much cheaper eradication technology or c) governments willing to spend billions of dollars on eradication instead of on stuff that gets them elected- like health services.

    There seems to be insufficient recognition of the legacy effects, vulnerabilities of NZ biota, and the sheer scale of the problem we face to reach our biodiversity targets. That has to be part of any conversation on biodiversity.

    • Thanks Brendan,
      I suppose the first thing I’d say is that blog is drawing only key issues out of a big book. The second is that we do acknowledge the vulnerabilities we have and that a lot of the degradation we have experienced (but far from all, lots is very recent) is historical. I don’t think that absolves us of taking action however – do we set out nearly 30 solutions to help address the decline. And recognising that the job is difficult does not much alter the need for change – if anything it makes it more pressing.

  • What I can never understand is why people seem to think the biodiversity crisis caused by mass habitat destruction and the introduction of numerous exotic species is somehow a past event. When exactly did it stop?! The exact same processes are causing numerous species to decline right now. Its the same rats, the same weeds, where in the middle of the initial event right now.

    The reference to Duvaucels gecko being supposedly not threatened on the mainland is a bit puzzling, only one individual has ever been found on the mainland and no amount of search effort anywhere withion its previous nZ_wide range has found any other sign – even droppings or shedded skins, asides from this. It may well be in CRITICAL status, hardly an example of “high enough to not be threatened”.

  • What I can never understand is the temptation of many people to exaggerate wildly in order to try to lobby for something. It is important to quantify the situation realistically. I maintain that there is nothing in NZ which deserves to be called a “biodiversity crisis”. There are a few endangered species and a continuation of some habitat destruction on a small scale, but none of this amounts to a “crisis”! My point with Duvaucels gecko was just that it has apparently survived unnoticed at a mainland site, which suggests the possibility that it is present at low densities across a vast area of remote North Island forests, making it hard to know if it is really declining at the moment or not. Yes, it might be critical, but basing a “biodivesrity crisis” on what might be the case is not really helpful! We need to encourage both the govt and the public at large to vare more for the environment and biodiversity, but I don’t think that talking it up as a looming “biodiversity crisis” is the way to go.

  • What, exactly, is the “wild exageration” Stephen? How about claims that numerous listed threatened taxa arn’t really threatened with little supporting evidence and not balanced out with the same logic many taxa not currently listed as threatened almost certainly are? Or using an animal like mainland Duvauceli as an example of potentially ‘not threatened’ (a species in TERRIBLE status on the mainland as proven by copious search effort right across the North Island over many decades by many, many different people, with a remarkable zero additional incidental sightings for a huge animal sure to attract attention if seen, and a species that has proven through numerous observations to be highly vulnerable to extinction in the presence of even a single rat species let alone a whole predator suite. I would happily class either of these points from you as wild exaggeration.

  • @Tony

    Once a species gets on a list of threatened species, without proper evidence, it is very difficult to get it off the list (because it is significantly harder to prove that it isn’t threatened). The point is that your hypothetical “many” taxa not currently listed but which almost certainly are threatened is not “many” enough, I suggest, to be a significant proportion of overall native NZ biodiversity, and therefore does not constitute a “biodiversity crisis”.

    You are making too much of the duvauceli example, which was just an example to try to show that there is an interesting question about undetectably low densities of a species over wide enough areas, i.e. can such low densities be sustainable and stable, and what might the overall number of individuals be? I’m sure that a few “hit and run” surveys of somewhere like the Ureweras, for example, could fail to pick up species present at low densities, but the overall population might well be large enough to be sustainable and stable.