Biowealth

24 02 2016

frogWhile I’ve blogged about this before in general terms (here and here), I thought it wise to reproduce the (open-access) chapter of the same name published in late 2013 in the unfortunately rather obscure book The Curious Country produced by the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia. I think it deserves a little more limelight.

As I stepped off the helicopter’s pontoon and into the swamp’s chest-deep, tepid and opaque water, I experienced for the first time what it must feel like to be some other life form’s dinner. As the helicopter flittered away, the last vestiges of that protective blanket of human technological innovation flew away with it.

Two other similarly susceptible, hairless, clawless and fangless Homo sapiens and I were now in the middle of one of the Northern Territory’s largest swamps at the height of the crocodile-nesting season. We were there to collect crocodile eggs for a local crocodile farm that, ironically, has assisted the amazing recovery of the species since its near-extinction in the 1960s. Removing the commercial incentive to hunt wild crocodiles by flooding the international market with scar-free, farmed skins gave the dwindling population a chance to recover.

redwoodConservation scientists like me rejoice at these rare recoveries, while many of our fellow humans ponder why we want to encourage the proliferation of animals that can easily kill and eat us. The problem is, once people put a value on a species, it is usually consigned to one of two states. It either flourishes as do domestic crops, dogs, cats and livestock, or dwindles towards or to extinction. Consider bison, passenger pigeons, crocodiles and caviar sturgeon.

As a conservation scientist, it’s my job not only to document these declines, but to find ways to prevent them. Through careful measurement and experiments, we provide evidence to support smart policy decisions on land and in the sea. We advise on the best way to protect species in reserves, inform hunters and fishers on how to avoid over-harvesting, and demonstrate the ways in which humans benefit from maintaining healthy ecosystems. Read the rest of this entry »





Oceans need their giants

2 11 2011

Another great post from Salvador Herrando Pérez.

from adsown.blogspot.com

Commercial and sport fishing establish minimum body sizes for catches of many species to preserve fish stocks. Recent work reveals that sustainable fisheries also depend on the regulation of the harvest of the biggest fish, at least in long-lived species.

Growing up in Spain in the 1980s, I was taken by a Spanish television spot featuring a shoal of little fish sucking colourful dummies, and at the same time (how they managed, I never questioned) singing the motto Little fish? No, thanks. The then Ministry of Agriculture, Fishery and Food created this media campaign to create awareness among consumers not to buy immature fish at local markets – “…a 60-gram hake will only weigh 2 kg after two years” the add stated.

Indeed, the regulation of fish harvest by age classes is substantial to any fishery. In particular, the protection of younger fish has been a beacon of fishery policy and management that dates back to the 19th century when, among others, the British ichthyologist Ernst Holt concluded that: “…it is desirable that fish should have a chance of reproducing their species at least once before they are destroyed” 1. Very much in line with such principles, conventional fish stock management has in practice neglected the mature age classes2, other than for the fact that they are the end point of extraction and what we consumers eat on the table. Read the rest of this entry »





The rarity paradox

22 06 2011

© C. Madden

My friend and colleague at the Centre National de Recherche Scientfique (CNRS), Laboratoire d’Ecologie Systématique & Evolution based at the Université Paris-Sud in France, Dr. Franck ‘Allee EffectCourchamp, has asked me to help him out finding a suitable candidate for what sounds like a very cool job. If you’re in the market for a very interesting and highly relevant conservation post-doctoral fellowship, please read on.

And even if you’re not looking for a position, but are interested in the anthropogenic Allee effect, then by all means, please read on as well.

This two-year fellowship is part of a grant focused on demonstrating the novel rarity paradox, either in new wildlife trade markets (i.e., exotic pets, traditional medicine, et cetera) or in newly exploited species (e.g., tibetan antilope, seahorses, et cetera). Read the rest of this entry »





Rare just tastes better

11 02 2009

I had written this a while ago for publication, but my timing was out and no one had room to publish it. So, I’m reproducing it here as an extension to a previous post (That looks rare – I’ll kill that one).

As the international market for luxury goods expands in value, extent and diversity of items (Nueno & Quelch 1998), the world’s burgeoning pool of already threatened species stands to worsen. Economic theory predicts that harvested species should eventually find refuge from over-exploitation because it simply becomes too costly to find the last remaining wild individuals (Koford & Tschoegl 1998). However, the self-reinforcing cycle of human greed (Brook & Sodhi 2006) can make rare species increasingly valuable to a few select consumers such that mounting financial incentives drive species to extinction (Courchamp et al. 2006). The economic and ecological arguments are compelling, but to date there has been little emphasis on how the phenomenon arises in the human thought process, nor how apparently irrational behaviour can persist. Gault and colleagues (2008) have addressed this gap in a paper published recently in Conservation Letters by examining consumer preferences for arguably one of the most stereotypical luxury food items, caviar from the 200-million-year-old sturgeon (Acipenser spp.).

Sturgeon (6 genera) populations worldwide are in trouble, with all but two of the 27 known species threatened with extinction (either Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered) according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Despite all 27 species also having strict international trade restrictions imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (Gault et al. 2008), intense commercial pressure persists for 15 of these at an estimated global value exceeding US$200 million annually (Pikitch et al. 2005). The very existence of the industry itself and the luxury good it produces are therefore, at least for some regions, unlikely to endure over the next decade (Pala 2007). What drives such irrational behaviour and why can we not seem to prevent such coveted species from spiralling down the extinction vortex?

Gault and colleagues addressed this question specifically in an elegantly simple set of preference experiments targeting the very end-consumers of the caviar production line – French connoisseurs. Some particularly remarkable results were derived from presentations of identical caviar; 86 % of attendees of luxury receptions not only preferred falsely labelled ‘rarer’ Siberian caviar (A. baeri) after blind tasting experiments, they also scored what they believed was caviar from the rarer species as having a higher ‘gustative quality’. These high-brow results were compared to more modest consumers in French supermarkets, with similar conclusions. Not only were unsuspecting gourmands fooled into believing the experimental propaganda, subjects in both cases stated a preference for seemingly rarer caviar even prior to tasting.

The psycho-sociological implications of perceived rarity are disturbing themselves; but Gault and colleagues extended their results with a mathematical game theory model demonstrating how irrational choices drive just such a harvested species to extinction. The economic implications of attempting to curb exploitation as species become rarer when the irrationality of perceived rarity was taken into consideration were telling – there is no payoff in delaying exploitation as more and more consumers are capable of entering the market. In other words, the assumption that consumers apply a positive temporal discount rate to their payoff (Olson & Bailey 1981) is wrong, with the demographic corollary that total depletion of the resource ensues. The authors contend that such artificial value may drive the entire luxury goods market based mainly on the self-consciousness and social status of consumers able to afford these symbols of affluence.

The poor record of species over-exploitation by humans arising from the Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin 1968) is compounded by this new information. This anthropogenic Allee effect (Courchamp et al. 2006) provides a novel example mechanism for how small populations are driven ever-downward because low densities ensure declining fitness. Many species may follow the same general rules, from bluefin tuna, Napoleon wrasse lips and shark fins, to reptile skins and Tibetan antelope woollen shawls. Gault and colleagues warn that as the human population continues to expand and more people enter the luxury-goods market, more wildlife species will succumb to this Allee effect-driven extinction vortex.

The authors suggest that a combination of consumer education and the encouragement of farmed substitute caviar will be more effective than potentially counter-productive trading bans that ultimately encourage illegal trade. However, the preference results suggest that education might not promote positive action given that reluctance of affluent consumers to self-limit. I believe that the way forward instead requires a combination of international trade bans, certification schemes for ‘sustainable’ goods that flood markets to increase supply and reduce price, better controls on point-of-origin labelling, and even state-controlled ‘warning’ systems to alert prospective consumers that they are enhancing the extinction risk of the very products they enjoy. A better architecture for trading schemes and market systems that embrace long-term persistence can surely counteract the irrationality of the human-induced destruction of global ecosystem services. We just need to put our minds and pocketbooks to the task.

CJA Bradshaw

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That looks rare – I’ll kill that one

12 12 2008

Here’s an interesting (and disturbing) one from Conservation Letters by Gault and colleagues entitled Consumers’ taste for rarity drives sturgeons to extinction.

I like caviar, I have to admit. I enjoy the salty fishy-ness and the contrast it makes with the appropriate selection of wine (bubbly or otherwise). I guess a lot of other people like it too, to the extent that worldwide sturgeon population’s have been  hammered (all 27 species are listed in CITES Appendix I or II, and 15 species are still heavily exploited). Indeed, in the Caspian Sea from where 90 % of caviar comes, sturgeon populations have declined by 90 % since the late 1980s. Admittedly, I haven’t had sturgeon caviar very often, and I doubt I’ll ever eat it again.

Using a set of simple ‘preference’ experiments on epicurean (French) human subjects, Gault and colleagues found that when told that a particular type of caviar was rarer than the others (when in reality, they two choices were identical), these refined gourmets generally tended to claim that the rarer one tasted better.

This means that humans have a tendency to place exaggerated value on harvested species when they think they’re rare (in most instances, rarity is itself the result of over-exploitation by humans). This so-called ‘anthropogenic Allee effect‘ (see Courchamp et al. 2006) basically means that at least for the wildlife-based luxury market, there’s little chance that calls for reduced harvest will be heard because people continually adjust their willingness to pay more. This turns into a spiralling extinction vortex for the species concerned.

What to do? Ban all trade of caviar? This might do it, but with the reluctance to reduce highly profitable industries like this (see previous post on tuna over-exploitation here), there’s a strong incentive even for the harvesters to drive themselves out of a job. Consumer education (and a good dose of guilt) might help too, but I have my doubts.

CJA Bradshaw

© S. Crownover courtesy of Caviar Emptor

© S. Crownover courtesy of Caviar Emptor

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