Evidence-based conservation advocacy can work

15 09 2014
Colin 'Captain Hook' Barnett

Colin ‘Captain Hook’ Barnett

Just before knock-off time last Friday, I received some inspiring news. It’s not often in conservation science that the news is good, so even small wins are deliciously welcome.

Unless you’ve been out bush for the last few days or completely ignored the news services, you would have heard that Western Australia has decided not to go ahead with its moronic shark-culling programme. It all came down to the Western Australia Environmental Protection Authority‘s recommendation to the state government that it should not proceed with the cull because of ‘uncertainties’ in its effectiveness and impacts. While the government could conceivably ignore this recommendation and go ahead with the cull anyway, the right-wing Premier of Western Australia, Colin ‘Captain Hook’ Barnett, stated that while he was “disappointed”, the government was unlikely to appeal the decision, at least this year.

Putting the obvious commentary on his response aside for the moment, this is a rare example where overwhelming evidence actually persuaded a semi-autonomous government agency from going ahead with clearly stupid environmental policies. I can claim a small part in this endeavour, having co-written the synopsis of the scientific consensus statement and co-signed the submission to the Environmental Protection Authority. However, it was mainly down to the hard work and dedication of Professor Jessica Meeuwig of the University of Western Australia that the Western Australia government had little choice to but to heed our condemnation. Without her, I can pretty much guarantee that the shark slaughter would be continuing this year.

As they say in France, “chapeau” to Jessica. Read the rest of this entry »





Western Australia’s moronic shark cull

4 07 2014

another stupid politicianA major media release today coordinated by Jessica Meeuwig in Western Australia makes the (obvious) point that there’s no biological justification to cull sharks.

301 Australian and International Scientists experts have today provided their submission to the Western Australia Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), rejecting the scientific grounds for the proposed three-year drum-line programme.

Coordinating scientist, Professor Jessica Meeuwig from the University of Western Australia said:

“To have over 300 researchers, including some of the world’s top shark specialists and marine ecologists, all strongly agreeing that there is no scientific basis for the lethal drum-line programme, tells you how unjustified the government’s proposal is. If the EPA and the Federal Minister for the Environment are using science for decisions, the drum-line proposal should not be approved.”

The experts agree that the proposal presents no evidence that the lethal drum-line programme, as implemented, will improve ocean safety. It ignores evidence from other hook-based programs in Hawaii and Queensland that have been shown to be ineffective in reducing shark attacks on humans.

Dr. Christopher Neff from the University of Sydney stated:

“There is no evidence that drum lines reduce shark bites. The Western Australia EPA now faces a question of science versus politics with global implications because it is considering establishing a new international norm that would allow for the killing of protected white sharks.”

The drum lines are ineffective and indiscriminate, with 78% of the sharks captured not considered ‘threatening’ to humans. Yet, scientifically supported, non-lethal alternatives such as the South African ‘Shark Spotter’ and Brazil’s ‘Tag and Remove’ programmes are not adequately assessed as viable options for Western Australia. Read the rest of this entry »





New Threatened Species Commissioner lacks teeth

2 07 2014

This is not Gregory Andrews

Published today on ABC Environment.

Greg Hunt, the Coalition Government’s Minister for the Environment, today announced what appears to be one of the only environmental promises kept from their election campaign in 2013: to appoint a Threatened Species Commissioner.

The appointment is unprecedented for Australia – we have never had anything remotely like it in the past. However, I am also confident that this novelty will turn out to be one of the position’s only positives.

My scepticism is not based on my personal political or philosophical perspectives; rather, it arises from Coalition Government’s other unprecedented policies to destroy Australia’s environment. No other government in the last 50 years has mounted such a breath-taking War on the Environment. In the nine month’s since the Abbott Government took control, there has been a litany of backward and dangerous policies, from the well-known axing of the Climate Commission and their push to dump of 3 million tonnes of dredge on the World Heritage Great Barrier Reef, to their lesser-publicised proposals to remove the non-profit tax status of green organisations and kill the Environmental Defenders Office. The Government’s list of destructive, right-wing, anti-environmental policies is growing weekly, with no signs of abatement.

With this background, it should come as no surprise that considerable cynicism is emerging following the Minister’s announcement. Fears that another powerless pawn of the current government appear to have been realised with the appointment of Gregory Andrews as the Commissioner. Mr Andrews is a public servant (ironically from the now-defunct Department of Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency) and former diplomat who has some minor infamy regarding contentious comments he made in 2006 when acting as a senior bureaucrat in Mal Brough’s Department of Indigenous Affairs. Apart from Mr Gregory’s general lack of specific expertise in species recovery, the choice appears to be neutral at best.

More importantly, the major limitation of the Commissioner to realise real benefits for Australian biodiversity is the position’s total lack of political power. Greg Hunt himself confirmed that Mr Andrews will not be able to affect government policy other than ‘encourage’ cooperation between states and environmental groups. The position also comes with a (undisclosed) funding guarantee of only one year, which makes it sound more like an experiment in public relations than effective environmental policy. Read the rest of this entry »





School finishers and undergraduates ill-prepared for research careers

22 05 2014

bad mathsHaving been for years now at the pointy end of the educational pathway training the next generation of scientists, I’d like to share some of my observations regarding how well we’re doing. At least in Australia, my realistic assessment of science education is: not well at all.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time, but only now decided to put my thoughts into words as the train wreck of our current government lurches toward a future guaranteeing an even stupider society. Charging postgraduate students to do PhDs for the first time, encouraging a US-style system of wealth-based educational privilege, slashing education budgets and de-investing in science while promoting the belief in invisible spaghetti monsters from space, are all the latest in the Fiberal future nightmare that will change our motto to “Australia – the stupid country”.

As you can appreciate, I’m not filled with a lot of hope that the worrying trends I’ve observed over the past 10 years or so are going to get any better any time soon. To be fair though, the problems go beyond the latest stupidities of the Fiberal government.

My realisation that there was a problem has crystallised only recently as I began to notice that most of my lab members were not Australian. In fact, the percentage of Australian PhD students and post-doctoral fellows in the lab usually hovers around 20%. Another sign of a problem was that even when we advertised for several well-paid postdoctoral positions, not a single Australian made the interview list (in fact, few Australians applied at all). I’ve also talked to many of my colleagues around Australia in the field of quantitative ecology, and many lament the same general trend.

Is it just poor mathematical training? Yes and no. Australian universities have generally lowered their entry-level requirements for basic maths, thereby perpetuating the already poor skill base of school leavers. Why? Bums (that pay) on seats. This means that people like me struggle to find Australian candidates that can do the quantitative research we need done. We are therefore forced to look overseas. Read the rest of this entry »





A convenient truth: global push for carbon-based conservation

19 05 2014

Eucalyptus viminalis (Manna Gum) - leaf, adultI’ve just written an article for the Australian River Restoration Centre‘s RipRap magazine, and they have given me permission to reproduce it here.

The brave, new green world of the carbon economy hasn’t exactly taken off as desired. Perhaps it’s because it wasn’t really planned from the outset, or maybe it is still too abstract for most people to accept, digest and incorporate into their daily lives. An emergent property of society’s generally slow awakening to the challenge of climate disruption, is that it will be a long time before we accept its full suite of incarnations.

The infant carbon economy is, however, well and truly alive and kicking, so it is important to try and plan for its growing influence on our decision making. Bumps in the road aside, the carbon economy has mostly been a blessing (actual and potential) for biodiversity conservation projects the world over.

In principle, the aim of the carbon economy is rather straight-forward: charge people a certain amount for each unit of carbon dioxide equivalents they release, and then use that money to develop approaches that further increase carbon sequestration or limit emissions. It’s a ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ framework, where increasing financial impetus to restrict emissions is enhanced by society’s evolution towards better approaches and technology.

The operational side of the carbon economy is unfortunately much more muddled, with vested interests and political gaming weakening its implementation. Nonetheless, we persevere. Read the rest of this entry »





Australian League of Environmental Organisations

6 05 2014
Shades of Green

Shades of Green

ALEO – the acronym has a nice ring to it. Although I must confess that said organisation doesn’t yet exist, but it bloody well should.

Australia is in dire need of a united front to tackle the massive anti-environment sentiment gripping this country’s band of irresponsible and short-sighted libertarian politicians. Only yesterday I was chatting to a student in the tea room about my ‘State of South Australia’s Environment‘ talk when he asked “So, what can we do about it?”. Isn’t that the 1 per cent1 question?

Apart from the obvious: (1) keep up the pressure on bad government plans (petitions, letters, blogs, reports, e-mails), (2) don’t vote for the Coalition and (3) if you’re a scientist, place some economic or well-being value on environmental processes so that even politicians can understand that maintaining ecosystems makes good economic sense, I almost casually mentioned that we need a united front in Australia against this latest right-wing wave of anti-environmentalism.

I’ve thought about this before, but my latest conversation got me reflecting on the problem a little more – why don’t we have a united league of environmental organisations in Australia? Read the rest of this entry »





Putting the ‘science’ in citizen science

30 04 2014
How to tell if a koala has been in your garden. © Great Koala Count

How to tell if a koala has been in your garden. © Great Koala Count

When I was in Finland last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Tomas Roslin and hearing him describe his Finland-wide citizen-science project on dung beetles. What impressed me most was that it completely flipped my general opinion about citizen science and showed me that the process can be useful.

I’m not trying to sound arrogant or scientifically elitist here – I’m merely stating that it was my opinion that most citizen-science endeavours fail to provide truly novel, useful and rigorous data for scientific hypothesis testing. Well, I must admit that I still believe that ‘most’ citizen-science data meet that description (although there are exceptions – see here for an example), but Tomas’ success showed me just how good they can be.

So what’s the problem with citizen science? Nothing, in principle; in fact, it’s a great idea. Convince keen amateur naturalists over a wide area to observe (as objectively) as possible some ecological phenomenon or function, record the data, and submit it to a scientist to test some brilliant hypothesis. If it works, chances are the data are of much broader coverage and more intensively sampled than could ever be done (or afforded) by a single scientific team alone. So why don’t we do this all the time?

If you’re a scientist, I don’t need to tell you how difficult it is to design a good experimental sampling regime, how even more difficult it is to ensure objectivity and precision when sampling, and the fastidiousness with which the data must be recorded and organised digitally for final analysis. And that’s just for trained scientists! Imagine an army of well-intentioned, but largely inexperienced samplers, you can quickly visualise how the errors might accumulate exponentially in a dataset so that it eventually becomes too unreliable for any real scientific application.

So for these reasons, I’ve been largely reluctant to engage with large-scale citizen-science endeavours. However, I’m proud to say that I have now published my first paper based entirely on citizen science data! Call me a hypocrite (or a slow learner). Read the rest of this entry »








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