Protein mining the world’s oceans

31 03 2009

Last month David Agnew and colleagues published a paper in PLoS One examining the global extent of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing (Estimating the worldwide extent of illegal fishing), estimating its value from US$10-23.5 billion and representing between 11 and 26 million tonnes of fish annually. The value is roughly the same as that lost from illegal logging each year. Wow.

Of perhaps most interest is that Agnew and colleagues found evidence for a negative relationship between IUU fishing as a proportion of total catch and an international (World Bank) governance quality index. This suggests that improving governance and eradicating corruption may be the best way to curtail the extent of the illegal harvest.

We have just published a paper online in Fish and Fisheries about the extent and impact of IUU fishing in northern Australia. Entitled Protein mining the world’s oceans: Australasia as an example of illegal expansion-and-displacement fishing, the paper by Iain Field and colleagues advocates a multi-lateral response to a problem that has grown out of control in recent decades.

IUU fishing is devastating delicate ecosystems and fish breeding grounds in waters to Australia’s north, and can no longer be managed effectively by individual nations. The problem now requires an urgent regional solution if food security into the future is to be maintained.

The paper is the first big-picture account of the problem from Australia’s perspective. Although there had been a decline in IUU fishing in Australian waters over the past two years, possibly linked to large Australian government expenditure on enforcement and rising fuel prices, the forces driving illegal fishing have not gone away and are likely to resurface in our waters.

We expect that the small-scale illegal fishers will be back to prey on other species such as snapper, trochus and trepang as soon as it is economically viable for them to do so. To date, these IUU fishers have focused mostly on high-value sharks mainly for the fin trade, to the extent that the abundance of some shark species has dropped precipitously. IUU fishing, which has devastated fish resources and their associated ecosystems throughout Southeast Asian waters, is driven by deep economic and societal forces. For example, the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s drove a large number of people out of cities and into illegal fishing.

It is not enough to maintain just a national response as the problem crosses national maritime zones, and it poses one of the biggest threats known to marine ecosystems throughout the region. These IUU fishers are mining protein, and there is no suggestion of sustainability or factoring in fish breeding or ecosystem protection into the equation. They just come into a fishing area and strip-mine it, leaving it bare.

Illegal fishing in Australian waters started increasing steeply about 10 years ago, largely because of over-exploitation of waters farther north, peaking in 2005-06 then falling away just as steeply. There are three factors behind the recent downturn: Australian government enforcement measures estimated to have cost at least AU$240 million since 2006; the high price of fuel for the fishing boats; and, most importantly, the fact that the high-value species may have been fished out and are now economically and ecologically extinct.

The $240 million has funded surveillance, apprehension, transportation, processing and accommodation of the several thousand illegal foreign fishermen detained each year since 2006. These activities have been successful, but it is doubtful whether they can hold back the IUU tide indefinitely – the benefits to the illegal fishers of their activities far outweigh the penalties if caught.

With increasing human populations in the region, the pressure to fish illegally is likely to increase. Regional responses are required to deter and monitor the illegal over-exploitation of fisheries resources, which is critical to secure ecosystem stability as climate change and other destructive human activities threaten food security.

CJA Bradshaw (with IC Field, MG Meekan and RC Buckworth)

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Classics: Ecological Triage

27 03 2009

It is a truism that when times are tough, only the strongest pull through. This isn’t a happy concept, but in our age of burgeoning biodiversity loss (and economic belt-tightening), we have to make some difficult decisions.In this regard, I suggest Brian Walker’s1992 paper Biodiveristy and ecological redundancy makes the Classics list.

Ecological triage is, of course, taken from the medical term triage used in emergency or wartime situations. Ecological triage refers to the the conservation prioritisation of species that provide unique or necessary functions to ecosystems, and the abandonment of those that do not have unique ecosystem roles or that face almost certain extinction given they fall well below their minimum viable population size (Walker 1992). Financial resources such as investment in recovery programmes, purchase of remaining habitats for preservation, habitat restoration, etc. are allocated accordingly; the species that contribute the most to ecosystem function and have the highest probability of persisting are earmarked for conservation and others are left to their own devices (Hobbs & Kristjanson 2003).

This emotionally empty and accounting-type conservation can be controversial because public favourites like pandas, kakapo and some dolphin species just don’t make the list in many circumstances. As I’ve stated before, it makes no long-term conservation or economic sense to waste money on the doomed and ecologically redundant. Many in the conservation business apply ecological triage without being fully aware of it. Finite pools of money (generally the paltry left-overs from some green-guilty corporation or under-funded government initiative) for conservation mean that we have to set priorities – this is an entire discipline in its own right in conservation biology. Reserve design is just one example of this sacrifice-the-doomed-for-the good-of-the-ecosystem approach.

Walker (1992) advocated that we should endeavour to maintain ecosystem function first, and recommended that we abandon programmes to restore functionally ‘redundant’ species (i.e., some species are more ecologically important than others, e.g., pollinators, prey). But how do you make the choice? The wrong selection might mean an extinction cascade (Noss 1990; Walker 1992) whereby tightly linked species (e.g., parasites-hosts, pollinators-plants, predators-prey) will necessarily go extinct if one partner in the mutualism disappears (see Koh et al. 2004 on co-extinctions). Ecological redundancy is a terribly difficult thing to determine, especially given that we still understand relatively little about how complex ecological systems really work (Marris 2007).

The more common (and easier, if not theoretically weaker) approach is to prioritise areas and not species (e.g., biodiversity hotspots), but even the criteria used for area prioritisation can be somewhat arbitrary and may not necessarily guarantee the most important functional groups are maintained (Orme et al. 2005; Brooks et al. 2006). There are many different ways of establishing ‘priority’, and it depends partially on your predilections.

More recent mathematical approaches such as cost-benefit analyses (Possingham et al. 2002; Murdoch et al. 2007) advocate conservation like a CEO would run a profitable business. In this case the ‘currency’ is biodiversity, and so a fixed financial investment must maximise long-term biodiversity gains (Possingham et al. 2002). This essentially estimates the potential biodiversity saved per dollar invested, and allocates funds accordingly (Wilson et al. 2007). Where the costs outweigh the benefits, conservationists move on to more beneficial goals. Perhaps the biggest drawback with this approach is that it’s particularly data-hungry. When ecosystems are poorly measured, then the investment curve is unlikely to be very realistic.

CJA Bradshaw

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(Many thanks to Lochran Traill and Barry Brook for co-developing these ideas with me)

Destroyed or Destroyer?

23 03 2009

Last year our group published a paper in Journal of Ecology that examined, for the first time, the life history correlates of a species’ likelihood to become invasive or threatened.

The paper is entitled Threat or invasive status in legumes is related to opposite extremes of the same ecological and life-history attributes and was highlighted by the Editor of the journal.

The urgency and scale of the global biodiversity crisis requires being able to predict a species’ likelihood of going extinct or becoming invasive. Why? Well, without good predictive tools about a species’ fate, we can’t really prepare for conservation actions (in the case of species more likely to go extinct) or eradication (in the case of vigorous invasive species).

We considered the problem of threat and invasiveness in unison based on analysis of one of the largest-ever databases (8906 species) compiled for a single plant family (Fabaceae = Leguminosae). We chose this family because it is one of the most speciose (i.e., third highest number of species) in the Plant kingdom, its found throughout all continents and terrestrial biomes except Antarctica, its species range in size from dwarf herbs to large tropical trees, and its life history, form and functional diversity makes it one of the most important plant groups for humans in terms of food production, fodder, medicines, timber and other commercial products. Choosing only one family within which to examine cross-species trends also makes the problem of shared evolutionary histories less problematic from the perspective of confounded correlations.

We found that tall, annual, range-restricted species with tree-like growth forms, inhabiting closed-forest and lowland sites are more likely to be threatened. Conversely, climbing and herbaceous species that naturally span multiple floristic kingdoms and habitat types are more likely to become invasive.

Our results support the idea that species’ life history and ecological traits correlate with a fate response to anthropogenic global change. In other words, species do demonstrate particular susceptibility to either fate based on their evolved traits, and that traits generally correlated with invasiveness are also those that correlate with a reduced probability of becoming threatened.

Conservation managers can therefore benefit from these insights by being able to rank certain plant species according to their risk of becoming threatened. When land-use changes are imminent, poorly documented species can essentially be ranked according to those traits that predispose them to respond negatively to habitat modification. Here, species inventories combined with known or expected life history information (e.g., from related species) can identify which species may require particular conservation attention. The same approach can be used to rank introduced plant species for their probability of spreading beyond the point of introduction and threatening native ecosystems, and to prioritise management interventions.

I hope more taxa are examined with such scrutiny so that we can have ready-to-go formulae for predicting a wider array of potential fates.

CJA Bradshaw

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Too many mouths to feed

19 03 2009

The venerable Professor John Beddington has some stern warnings about over-population in the next few decades. In essence, we cannot ignore the human over-population problem any longer. There are simply too many people for the finite resources available and the consumption rates that do not appear to be declining (not surprising given our voracious appetite for economic growth – more like long-term economic suicide, really). Australia is certainly no exception – with most of our country essentially uninhabitable, we’ve already exceeded our carrying capacity (but try telling this to the pollies).

In my opinion, human over-population is THE principal driver of biodiversity loss in the modern context. Without some serious global efforts for population planning, expect a lot more conflict in your lifetime, and a lot worse effects of climate change. See also Global Population Speak Out.

This one from the BBC:

Growing world population will cause a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages by 2030, the UK government chief scientist has warned. By 2030 the demand for resources will create a crisis with dire consequences, Prof John Beddington said. Demand for food and energy will jump 50% by 2030 and for fresh water by 30%, as the population tops 8.3 billion, he told a conference in London.

Climate change will exacerbate matters in unpredictable ways, he added. “It’s a perfect storm,” Prof Beddington told the Sustainable Development UK 09 conference.’Perfect storm’ poses global threat, says Professor Beddington. “There’s not going to be a complete collapse, but things will start getting really worrying if we don’t tackle these problems.”

Prof Beddington said the looming crisis would match the current one in the banking sector. “My main concern is what will happen internationally, there will be food and water shortages,” he said.

“We’re relatively fortunate in the UK; there may not be shortages here, but we can expect prices of food and energy to rise.” The United Nations Environment Programme predicts widespread water shortages across Africa, Europe and Asia by 2025. The amount of fresh water available per head of the population is expected to decline sharply in that time. The issue of food and energy security rose high on the political agenda last year during a spike in oil and commodity prices.

Prof Beddington said the concern now – when prices have dropped once again – was that the issues would slip back down the domestic and international agenda. “We can’t afford to be complacent. Just because the high prices have dropped doesn’t mean we can relax,” he said. Improving agricultural productivity globally was one way to tackle the problem, he added. At present, 30-40% of all crops are lost due to pest and disease before they are harvested. Professor Beddington said: “We have to address that. We need more disease-resistant and pest-resistant plants and better practices, better harvesting procedures. “Genetically-modified food could also be part of the solution. We need plants that are resistant to drought and salinity – a mixture of genetic modification and conventional plant breeding. Better water storage and cleaner energy supplies are also essential, he added.

Prof Beddington is chairing a subgroup of a new Cabinet Office task force set up to tackle food security. But he said the problem could not be tackled in isolation. He wants policy-makers in the European Commission to receive the same high level of scientific advice as the new US president, Barack Obama. One solution would be to create a new post of chief science adviser to the European Commission, he suggested.

CJA Bradshaw

Perceptions on poverty: the rising Middle Class

16 03 2009

I’m being somewhat ‘lazy’ this week in that I have unfortunately less time to spend on pertinent blog posts than I’d like (lecturing, looming deadlines, that sort of thing). So, I start out this week’s posts with one of my favourite TED talks – Hans Rosling debunks myths about the developing world.

What’s the relevance to biodiversity conservation? I’ll admit, it may appear somewhat tangential, but there are a few important messages (both potentially good and bad):

1. POSSIBLE BENEFIT #1: The rising wealth in the developing world and associated reduction in family size may inevitably curb our human population growth rates;

2. POSSIBLE DISADVANTAGE #1: Rising wealth will necessarily mean more and more consumption, and as we know at least for tropical developing nations, resource consumption is killing biodiversity faster than anywhere else on the planet;

3. POSSIBLE DISADVANTAGE #2: As family wealth rises, so too do opportunities do opportunities for the Anthropogenic Allee effect (consuming rare species just because you can afford to do so);

4. POSSIBLE BENEFIT #2: Better health care associated with rising wealth and lower infant mortality might make education a higher priority, teaching more people about the necessity of safeguarding ecosystem services.

I’m not convinced the advantages will necessarily outweigh the disadvantages; regardless, Prof. Rosling’s amazing 20-minute presentation will both entertain and enlighten. I recommend it for a lunchtime sitting or that late-afternoon attention wain.

CJA Bradshaw

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Woodland Recovery Initiative

12 03 2009

golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha)I’m recommending you view a video presentation (can be accessed by clicking the link below) by A/Prof. David Paton which demonstrates the urgency of reforesting the region around Adelaide. Glenthorne is a 208-ha property 17 km south of the Adelaide’s central business district owned and operated by the University of Adelaide. A major revegetation project called the Woodland Recovery Initative is being organised to achieve the following:

  • reclaim approximately 100 ha of farmland and reconstruct a suitable habitat that encourages the return of native species
  • establish a world-class research centre
  • employ scientists, technicians, teachers and managers to deliver research, educational, community engagement, monitoring and on-ground works
  • develop educational programs that involve local schools in the environmental works, so that young South Australians are engaged in the project and see it as important to the future of their community

In my view, this is a really exciting opportunity to test experimentally the best ways to restore woodlands to maximise biodiversity retention. Once revegetated, the Glenthorne property will link existing reserves to maximise forested area (and as we know, increasing habitat area is one of most effective ways to prevent extinction). The next step is to apply the knowledge gained from the long-term experimentation at Glenthorne to revegetate the regions surrounding Adelaide that have suffered 200 years of heavy deforestation.

I strongly encourage local support of this initiative – it’s not only biodiversity that will benefit – ecosystem services on which the human residents of the greater Adelaide region depend (including extremely important things such as water retention and carbon sequestration) will also be efficiently enhanced by evidence-based ecological restoration of the region. We could certainly use better natural water retention and more carbon sequestration in addition to the re-establishment of many extirpated native species!


CJA Bradshaw

Tropical Turmoil II

8 03 2009

In August last year I covered a paper my colleagues (Navjot Sodhi and Barry Brook) and I had in press in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment entitled Tropical turmoil – a biodiversity tragedy in progress. The paper is now available in the March 2009 issue of the journal (click here to access). We were also fortunate enough to grab the front cover (shown here) and have a dedicated podcast that you can listen to by clicking here about the paper and its findings. I encourage readers to have a listen if they’re interested in learning more about the woeful state of tropical biotas worldwide, and maybe some ways to rectify the problems. The intro to the podcast can be viewed by clicking here.

CJA Bradshaw