How things have (not) changed

13 04 2015

The other night I had the pleasure of dining with the former Australian Democrats leader and senator, Dr John Coulter, at the home of Dr Paul Willis (Director of the Royal Institution of Australia). It was an enlightening evening.

While we discussed many things, the 84 year-old Dr Coulter showed me a rather amazing advert that he and several hundred other scientists, technologists and economists constructed to alert the leaders of Australia that it was heading down the wrong path. It was amazing for three reasons: (i) it was written in 1971, (ii) it was published in The Australian, and (iii) it could have, with a few modifications, been written for today’s Australia.

If you’re an Australian and have even a modicum of environmental understanding, you’ll know that The Australian is a Murdochian rag infamous for its war on science and reason. Even I have had a run-in with its outdated, consumerist and blinkered editorial board. You certainly wouldn’t find an article like Dr Coulter’s in today’s Australian.

More importantly, this 44 year-old article has a lot today that is still relevant. While the language is a little outdated (and sexist), the grammar could use a few updates, and there are some predictions that clearly never came true, it’s telling that scientists and others have been worrying about the same things for quite some time.

In reading the article (reproduced below), one could challenge the authors for being naïve about how society can survive and even prosper despite a declining ecological life-support system. As I once queried Paul Ehrlich about some of his particularly doomerist predictions from over 50 years ago, he politely pointed out that much of what he predicted did, in fact, come true. There are over 1 billion people today that are starving, and another billion or so that are malnourished; combined, this is greater than the entire world population when Paul was born.

So while we might have delayed the crises, we certainly haven’t averted them. Technology does potentially play a positive role, but it can also increase our short-term carrying capacity and buffer the system against shocks. We then tend to ignore the indirect causes of failures like wars, famines and political instability because we do not recognise the real drivers: resource scarcity and ecosystem malfunction.

Australia has yet to learn its lesson.

To Those Who Shape Australia’s Destiny

We believe that western technological society has ignored two vital facts: Read the rest of this entry »





Australia’s perfect storm of negligence

17 03 2015

If, for the purposes of some sick and twisted thought experiment, you were to design policies that would ensure the long-term failure of a wealthy, developed nation, you wouldn’t have to look farther than Australia’s current recipe for future disaster. I’m not trying to be provocative, but the warning signs are too bold and flashy to ignore. Let’s just run through some of the main ones:

1. As the lambasted and thoroughly flawed 2015 Intergenerational Report clearly demonstrates, our current government has no idea about the future threats of climate change. Dragged kicking and screaming into only a symbolic recognition of some ‘distant and currently irrelevant problem’, the Abbott-oir and his intergenerational criminals are well known for killing the carbon-pricing scheme, dismantling the Department of Climate Change, pulling out of major international talks on climate-change mitigation and installing a half-arsed, ineffective policy that will do nothing to stem our emissions. Combine that with comments like “coal is good for humanity“, and it’s easy to see how our current leaders have little idea about the future mess they’re creating.

2. Not content just to kick the shit out of any meaningful climate action, our government has also turned its back on any renewable energy target, and facilitated the fossil-fuel barons to dig more coal out of the ground. While South Australia’s Royal Commission on the nuclear fuel cycle is a welcome candle in the climate change-mitigation darkness here, it is far from becoming a national priority any time soon.

3. As has been well documented, the Abbott-oir ship of fools has also done whatever it can to turn back decades of environmental protections in less than six months of taking office. Everything from opening up national parks for exploitation, failing to protect marine sanctuaries, limiting environmental checks to promoting logging in World Heritage Areas, there is little room for hope that our crumbling environmental system will improve at all in the near to long term. Read the rest of this entry »





Innate cruelty and exploitation: does biodiversity stand a chance?

11 11 2014

mean childEarlier this year I took my daughter to the South Australian Museum, as I often do on weekends. We usually have lunch at the Art Gallery, and then wander the various levels of the Museum at a pace suitable for a 7-year old. The South Australia biodiversity floor is her favourite.

Of course I’m a little biased in my opinion because I live in Adelaide, but in my attempt to be as objective as possible, I think we’re particularly fortunate to have this excellent museum at our doorstep. Not only are the exhibitions and displays top-notch, it is one of the most research-active museums in the country. In my opinion, it’s one of the best museums in Australia. To top it all off, admission is free.

However, this post isn’t about spruiking the museum – it’s about something deeply disturbing I experienced there during that visit earlier this year. In addition to the normal free displays, the Museum often has a special exhibition that one must pay to view. I often don’t bother with this, but on this particular occasion, the temporary exhibition called Ngintaka was free of charge.

Ngintaka was an eclectic mix of song, story, dance, painting and carving from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY Lands) as told by Anangu Traditional Owners. While most of the displays were great, there was one that stood out in particular. Read the rest of this entry »





Australia should have a more vibrant ecological culture

13 10 2014
Another great social event bringing ecologists together

Another great social event bringing ecologists together

I’ve always had the gut feeling that Australia punched above its weight when it comes to ecology and conservation. For years I’ve been confidently bragging to whomever might listen (mostly at conference pub sessions) that Australians have a vibrant academic and professional community of ecologists who are internationally renowned and respected. However, my bragging was entirely anecdotal and I always qualified the boast with the caveat that I hadn’t actually looked at the numbers.

Well, I finally did look at the numbers – at least superficially. It seems that for the most part, my assertion was true. I will qualify the following results with another caveat – I’ve only looked at the smallest of samples to generate this rank, so take it with a few grains of salt. Looking at the 200 most-cited ecologists in Google Scholar (with some licence as to who qualifies as an ‘ecologist’ – for example, I ditched a few medicos), I calculated the number of ecologists in that range per 100,000 people for each country. Of course, even the country of designation is somewhat fluid and imprecise – I did not know where most had received the bulk of their training and in which country they had spent most of their time, so the numbers are (again) only indicative. Excluding countries with only one highly cited ecologist in the top 200, the sorted list comes out as: Read the rest of this entry »





I still fucking love biodiversity

2 06 2014
ifuckinglovebiodiversity © Bastien Laurent

© Bastien Laurent

One year ago, I launched the Facebook page “I fucking love biodiversity” (IFLB) with a post here on ConservationBytes. My goal was to get people talking about biodiversity in a positive and light-hearted way (absolutely no ‘doom and gloom’). Today, IFLB now has about 17500 fans/followers across three social media platforms. It has been an amazing experience.

I will start by admitting that I created IFLB under the assumption that “if you build it, they will come”. I thought a catchy name, goodwill and a few bells and whistles would land me a huge audience. I was wrong. It took some very serious work. And IFLB is still pretty small in the global social-media landscape.

Gladly, I don’t have to manage IFLB by myself. I have a crack team of admins that share the load. Kudos go to Laure Cugnière, Phoebe Maund, Lydia Tiller and Romina Henriques and our own in-house designer, Hannah Conduit, all of whom work on a totally volunteer basis. Thanks everyone – IFLB wouldn’t be possible without you.

During this last year, I estimate we have invested in IFLB the equivalent of nine working weeks to put out 2-3 posts every single day (yes, xmas and New Years included). That was the first lesson I learned: being part of an effort like this requires serious dedication. Not only because you need to find the most interesting content and the best photos to go with it, but because you also need to ensure all photos have copyright information, that what you are posting is not the result of Photoshop wizardry and of course, that your fans’ comments and messages don’t go unanswered. 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 »





Making science matter

14 10 2013
© XKCD

© XKCD

I’ve been home from my last overseas trip now for nearly two weeks, but despite not feeling caught up, it’s high time I report what I was up to.

Some of you who follow my Twitter feed or who saw a CB post about cartoonist Seppo Leinonen know that I was visiting the University of Helsinki to participate in a three-day short course for PhD students entitled ‘Making Science Matter‘. I was so impressed with how well Mar Cabeza and Tomas Roslin put together the course, that I thought I’d share the format with CB readers (just in case any of you out there can be convinced to design a similar course at your university).

I think it’s important first to discuss the philosophy of the course and what it hoped to provide those early-career researchers.

Most science PhD students will tell you once they’ve completed their degree that they feel completely unprepared to launch themselves into the extra-curricular world of communicating their science beyond the ‘traditional’ (peer-reviewed journals) outlets. Swamped with learning how to write concisely and clearly, getting up to speed with the entire body of theory on which their projects are based, mastering advanced modelling and statistical approaches and learning how to apply efficient computer code, it’s no wonder that many students find precious little time for anything else (including families, good food and proper hygiene).

Once they do land that precious post-doctoral fellowship though, they are immediately expected to interact professionally with the media, embrace social media and give fantastic public lectures to engage the uninformed. Right. Read the rest of this entry »





I fucking love biodiversity

18 06 2013
© G. Gallice

© G. Gallice

A corker of an idea, and post, from Diogo Veríssimo.

I don’t like biodiversity. I like beef lasagna, I like the British museum and I like everything Jules Verne ever wrote. When it comes to biodiversity, it’s different. I think about it all the time, try to be close to it and suffer emotional distress when I think of it going irretrievably away. This is LOVE.

Understanding how to get this passion across effectively has always been one of my main goals. That is why my research has focused on the links between marketing and conservation. But recently I started feeling a bit more empowered to take this mission seriously, and all thanks to the Facebook page I fucking love Science. This page became an internet sensation amassing more than 5 million fans and engaging frequently over 4 million users in any given week. Forget the New York Times and National Geographic, this is the real deal.

So I wondered, why can’t I do the same for biodiversity? The idea lingered in my head until I read a recent paper by McCallum and Bury on Google search patterns, which shows how even during the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity we are failing to mainstream biodiversity and its associated issues. If fact, people seem to be less interested. Whatever we are doing is clearly not working. So why not give this concept a try? And so I fucking love Biodiversity (IFLB) was born.

Read the rest of this entry »





Advice for getting your dream job in conservation science

4 12 2012

people management

A few weeks ago I heard from an early-career researcher in the U.S. who had some intelligent things to say about getting jobs in conservation science based on a recent Conservation Biology paper she co-wrote. Of course, for all the PhDs universities are pumping out into the workforce, there will never be enough positions in academia for them all. Thus, many find their way into non-academic positions. But – does a PhD in science prepare you well enough for the non-academic world? Apparently not.

Many post-graduate students don’t start looking at job advertisements until we are actually ready to apply for a job. How often do we gleam the list of required skills and say, “If only I had done something to acquire project management skills or fundraising skills, then I could apply for this position…”? Many of us start post-graduate degrees assuming that our disciplinary training for that higher degree will prepare us appropriately for the job market. In conservation science, however, many non-disciplinary skills (i.e., beyond those needed to be a good scientist) are required to compete successfully for non-academic positions. What are these skills?

Our recent paper in Conservation Biology (Graduate student’s guide to necessary skills for nonacademic conservation careers) sifted through U.S. job advertisements and quantified how often different skills are required across three job sectors: nonprofit, government and private. Our analysis revealed that several non-disciplinary skills are particularly critical for job applicants in conservation science. The top five non-disciplinary skills were project management, interpersonal, written communication, program leadership and networking. Approximately 75% of the average job advertisement focused on disciplinary training and these five skills. In addition, the importance of certain skills differed across the different job sectors.

Below, we outline the paper’s major findings with regard to the top five skills, differences among sectors, and advice for how to achieve appropriate training while still in university. Read the rest of this entry »





Why do conservation scientists get out of bed?

1 10 2012

1*Zd2mpLgOIbJuLg3CqH8BQwI have, on many occasions, been faced with a difficult question after giving a public lecture. The question is philosophical in nature (and I was never very good at philosophy – just ask my IB philosophy teacher), hence its unusually complicated implications. The question goes something like this:

Given what you know about the state of the world – the decline in biodiversity, ecosystem services and our own health and welfare – how do you manage to get out of bed in the morning and go to work?

Yes, I can be a little, shall we say, ‘gloomy’ when I give a public lecture; I don’t tend to hold back much when it comes to just how much we’ve f%$ked over our only home, or why we continue to shit in our own (or in many cases, someone else’s) kitchen. It’s not that I get some sick-and-twisted pleasure out of seeing people in the front row shake their heads and ‘tsk-tsk’ their way through my presentation, but I do feel that as an ‘expert’ (ascribe whatever meaning to that descriptor you choose), I have a certain duty to inform non-experts about what the data say.

And if you’ve read even a handful of the posts on this site, you’ll understand that picture I paint isn’t full of roses and children’s smiling faces. A quick list of recent posts might remind you:

And so on. I agree – pretty depressing. Read the rest of this entry »





Arguing for scientific socialism in ecology funding

26 06 2012

What makes an ecologist ‘successful’? How do you measure ‘success’? We’d all like to believe that success is measured by our results’ transformation of ecological theory and practice – in a conservation sense, this would ultimately mean our work’s ability to prevent (or at least, slow down) extinctions.

Alas, we’re not that good at quantifying such successes, and if you use the global metric of species threats, deforestation, pollution, invasive species and habitat degradation, we’ve failed utterly.

So instead, we measure scientific ‘success’ via peer-reviewed publications, and the citations (essentially, scientific cross-referencing) that arise from these. These are blunt instruments, to be sure, but they are really the only real metrics we have. If you’re not being cited, no one is reading your work; and if no one is reading you’re work, your cleverness goes unnoticed and you help nothing and no one.

A paper I just read in the latest issue of Oikos goes some way to examine what makes a ‘successful’ ecologist (i.e., in terms of publications, citations and funding), and there are some very interesting results. Read the rest of this entry »





Biodiversity begins at home

20 01 2011

A few months ago I was involved in a panel discussion entitled ‘Biodiversity begins at home’ held at the Royal Institution of Australia in Adelaide and sponsored by the Don Dunstan Foundation.

The main thrust of the evening was to have both academic (me & Andy Lowe) and on-the-ground, local conservationists (Sarah Lance, Craig Gillespie and Matt Turner) talk about what people can do to stem the tide of biodiversity loss. The video is now available, so I thought I’d reproduce it here. We talked about a lot of issues (from global to local scale), so if you have a spare hour, you might get something out of this. I did, but it certainly wasn’t long enough to discuss such big issues.

Warning – this was supposed to be more of a discussion and less of a talkfest; unfortunately, many of the panel members seemed to forget this and instead dominated the session. We really needed 4 hours to do this properly (but then, who would have watched the video?).

Read the rest of this entry »





They always whinge about the maths

18 11 2010

If you don’t know what a differential equation is, you are not a scientist” – Hugh Possingham 2009

At the end of 2009 I highlighted a new book edited by good mates Navjot Sodhi and Paul Ehrlich, Conservation Biology for All, in which Barry Brook and I had written a chapter. Now, despite my vested interest, I thought (and still think) that it was one of the best books on conservation biology yet published, and the subsequent reviews appear to be validating my subjective opinion.

I’ve given snippets of the book’s contents, from Paul Ehrlich‘s editorial on the human population’s rising negative influences on biodiversity, to a more detailed synopsis of our chapter, The Conservation Biologist’s Toolbox, and I’ve reproduced a review printed in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

The latest review by Nicole Gross-Camp of the University of East Anglia published in Ecology is no less flattering – in fact, it is the most flattering to date. So this is by no means a whinge about a whinge; rather, consider it an academic lament followed by a query. First, the review:

Reaching higher in conservation

If a book could receive a standing ovation—this one is a candidate. Sodhi and Ehrlich have created a comprehensive introduction to conservation biology that is accessible intellectually, and financially, to a broad audience—indeed it is Conservation biology for all. The book is divided into 16 chapters that can stand alone and are complementary when read in sequence. The authors make excellent use of cross citations of chapters, a useful and often overlooked feature in texts of this nature. In the introductory chapter, Sodhi and Ehrlich eloquently summarize the gravity of the conservation crisis and still retain an optimistic outlook that encourages the reader to continue. I particularly found their recognition of population growth, consumption, and ethics in the conservation arena refreshing and a step toward what will likely become the next major issues of discussion and research in the conservation field. Read the rest of this entry »





Make your conservation PhD relevant

23 04 2010

The other day I was approached by two PhD candidates from James Cook University in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies who requested I publish a short article they put together on making conservation PhDs relevant while achieving academic excellence. I’m delighted to say that I found the article very well written and topical, so I am pleased to present it in full here.

© J. Cham

Make your conservation PhD relevant – bridging the research-implementation gap

Duan Biggs & Tom Brewer

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia

A recent paper, in Biotropica’s special issue on bridging the research-implementation gap (Duchelle et al. 2009) included examples of postgraduate students in the University of Florida’s Tropical Conservation and Development Program contributing to knowledge exchange with local stakeholders. The authors argue that this experience, during training, enables postgraduate students to develop their skills to confront the elaborate set of management and policy issues that will be present through their careers. We agree with Duchelle and her co-authors’ arguments, but believe that further discussion is required on finding the balance between the requirements of academic training and knowledge sharing with conservation stakeholders at the PhD level specifically.

Earning a PhD requires a novel theoretical contribution to a specific field of knowledge, and the practical value or contribution of that knowledge is of secondary importance, or irrelevant. Therefore, finding synergies between the requirements of academia and knowledge sharing can be particularly challenging at the PhD level. Yet, we believe that in an applied science like conservation, the quality of research and training will be enhanced through being more explicit about how to synergise a scientific contribution worthy of a PhD degree with related practical skills like knowledge sharing. In support of our argument, we propose the following six questions that PhD candidates, together with their academic supervisors, can consider during research design to enhance their contribution to knowledge exchange whilst meeting the requirements of academic training: Read the rest of this entry »





Few people, many threats – Australia’s biodiversity shame

31 07 2009

bridled_nailtail_400I bang on a bit about human over-population and how it drives biodiversity extinctions. Yet, it isn’t always hordes of hungry humans descending on the hapless species of this planet  – Australia is a big place, but has few people (just over 20 million), yet it has one of the higher extinction rates in the world. Yes, most of the country is covered in some fairly hard-core desert and most people live in or near the areas containing the most species, but we have an appalling extinction record all the same.

A paper that came out recently in Conservation Biology and was covered a little in the media last week gives some telling figures for the Oceania region, and more importantly, explains that we have more than enough information now to implement sound, evidence-based policy to right the wrongs of the past and the present. Using IUCN Red List data, Michael Kingsford and colleagues (paper entitled Major conservation policy issues for biodiversity in Oceania), showed that of the 370 assessed species in Australia, 80 % of the threatened ones are listed because of habitat loss, 40 % from invasive species and 30 % from pollution. As we know well, it’s mainly habitat loss we have to control if we want to change things around for the better (see previous relevant posts here, here & here).

Kingsford and colleagues proceed to give a good set of policy recommendations for each of the drivers identified:

Habitat loss and degradation

  • Implement legislation, education, and community outreach to stop or reduce land clearing, mining, and unsustainable logging through education, incentives, and compensation for landowners that will encourage private conservation
  • Establish new protected areas for habitats that are absent or poorly represented
  • In threatened ecosystems (e.g., wetlands), establish large-scale restoration projects with local communities that incorporate conservation and connectivity
  • Establish transparent and evidence-based state of environment reporting on biodiversity and manage threats within and outside protected areas.
  • Protect free-flowing river systems (largely unregulated by dams, levees, and diversions) within the framework of the entire river basin and increase environmental flows on regulated rivers

Invasive species

  • Avoid deliberate introduction of exotic species, unless suitable analyses of benefits outweigh risk-weighted costs
  • Implement control of invasive species by assessing effectiveness of control programs and determining invasion potential
  • Establish regulations and enforcement for exchange or treatment of ocean ballast and regularly implement antifouling procedures

Climate change

  • Reduce global greenhouse gas emissions
  • Identify, assess, and protect important climate refugia
  • Ameliorate the impacts of climate change through strategic management of other threatening processes
  • Develop strategic plans for priority translocations and implement when needed

Overexploitation

  • Implement restrictions on harvest of overexploited species to maintain sustainability
  • Implement an ecosystem-based approach for fisheries, based on scientific data, that includes zoning the ocean; banning destructive fishing; adopting precautionary fishing principles that include size limits, quotas, and regulation with sufficient resources based on scientific assessments of stocks and; reducing bycatch through regulation and education
  • Implement international mechanisms to increase sustainability of fisheries by supporting international treaties for fisheries protection in the high seas; avoiding perverse subsidies and improve labelling of sustainable fisheries; and licensing exports of aquarium fish
  • Control unsustainable illegal logging and wildlife harvesting through local incentives and cessation of international trade

Pollution

  • Decrease pollution through incentives and education; reduce and improve treatment of domestic, industrial, and agriculture waste; and rehabilitate polluted areas
  • Strengthen government regulations to stop generation of toxic material from mining efforts that affects freshwater and marine environments
  • Establish legislation and regulations and financial bonds (international) to reinforce polluter-pays principles
  • Establish regulations, education programs, clean ups, labelling, and use of biodegradable packaging to reduce discarded fishing gear and plastics

Disease

  • Establish early-detection programs for pathological diseases and biosecurity controls to reduce translocation
  • Identify causes, risk-assessment methods, and preventative methods for diseases
  • Establish remote communities of organisms (captive) not exposed to disease in severe outbreaks

Implementation

  • Establish regional population policies based on ecologically sustainable human population levels and consumption
  • Ensure that all developments affecting the environment are adequately analysed for impacts over the long term
  • Promote economic and societal benefits from conservation through education
  • Determine biodiversity status and trends with indicators that diagnose and manage declines
  • Invest in taxonomic understanding and provision of resources (scientific and conservation) to increase capacity for conservation
  • Increase the capacity of government conservation agencies
  • Focus efforts of nongovernmental organisations on small island states on building indigenous capacity for conservation
  • Base conservation on risk assessment and decision support
  • Establish the effectiveness of conservation instruments (national and international) and their implementation

A very good set of recommendations that I hope we can continue to develop within our governments.

CJA Bradshaw

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To market, to market, to buy a fat… fish

4 05 2009

An interesting new paper just appeared online (uncorrected proof stage) in Biological Conservation. Brewer and colleagues’ paper entitled Thresholds and multiple scale interaction of environment, resource use, and market proximity on reef fishery resources in the Solomon Islands describes how the proximity of fish markets explains some of the variation in fisheries takes on South Pacific coral reefs. Well, that may seem intuitive, you say – if you can’t access even a local market, chances are your fish will only feed you and your immediate family. Make an economic link to a larger pool of demanding consumers, and you have all the incentive you need to over-exploit your little patch of finned money.

Of course, the advent of better, more efficient transport (including refrigerated transport) and the development of local markets (i.e., tapping into larger ones in more populated areas) has inevitably caused fish depletions across the globe. Brewer and colleagues’ work provides a quantitative link between human demand and biodiversity decline (including ‘fishing down the web‘), and suggests that our best way to manage fisheries is to target the source of this demand – the markets and patterns of consumption. Ultimately, it’s the consumer that will dictate what does and what does not go extinct (see also previous post on consumer preferences for rare species). After all, if there’s a demand, someone will step in to provide the resource (provided it’s still there). Better education, smarter consumption and regulation along the entire chain will be far more effective in the long run than just attempting to control the fishers’ behaviour.

CJA Bradshaw

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Get serious about understanding biodiversity

3 03 2009

Sometimes I realise I live inside something of a bubble where most of my immediate human contacts have a higher-than-average comprehension of basic life science (after all, I work at a university). I often find myself surprised when I overhear so-called ‘lay’ people discussing whether or not penguins are fish, or that environmental awareness is just a pre-occupation of deluded greenies with nothing better to do.

If only it were so innocuous.

I found a great little article in the Canberra Times that laments the populace’s general ignorance of natural and environmental sciences. In my view, we must be as ecologically literate as we are in economics, maths and literature (and as the rapidly changing climate stresses even our most resilient resources and systems, I argue it will become THE most important thing to teach the young).

I’ve reproduced the Canberra Times article by Rossyln Beeby below:

“You don’t have to look, you don’t have to see, you can feel it in your olfactory,” sang Loudon Wainwright in a chirpy song about skunk roadkill back in the 1970s.

Likewise, it could be argued that if, as claimed, 5000 eastern grey kangaroos have died of starvation “in one season” at a Federal department of defence training site in Canberra, our noses would know about it. Do the maths. Even if 5000 kangaroos had died in one year, that’s roughly 14 animals a day, building to 98 carcasses a week. There would be, as one kangaroo ecologist dryly observed, “a murder of crows” descending on the site. If we interpret “one season” as three months, the carcass count would be over 1600 a month – which would amount to a serious health hazard for any troops using the training site as well as a unique waste disposal problem. Let’s be blunt here, as well as a murder of crows, the decaying corpses would also attract a buzz of blowflies and a heave of maggots.

Can this estimate be accurate? Or does it simply reveal the usual flaw in using walked ground surveys, or line transects, to estimate kangaroo numbers? This accuracy of this method, and the correction factors required, have been debated since the mid-1980s. These issues were the subject of a paper published in the “Australian Zoologist” almost a decade ago, which argues a case for aerial surveys to gain a better estimate of kangaroo numbers.

And are kangaroos starving at the site? If such large numbers are dying over such a short period, then are we in fact looking at a fatal virus – similar to outbreaks recently reported in northern NSW – which attacks the brain and eyes of kangaroos. Or a macropod alphaherpes virus – similar to that now attacking the immune system of koalas – which was identified in nasal swabs taken from eastern grey kangaroos that died in captivity in Queensland. Has someone done the necessary pathology?

Research in universities across Australia is revealing that macropod biology – that’s the biology of more than 50 species of creatures that are usually lumped, by the unobservant, into the generic category of “kangaroo” – is far more complex than previously thought. Recent developments include the revelation that climate change is affecting the breeding patterns of red kangaroos. Heat stress is killing young animals, because they need to work harder – an increased rate of shallow panting and bigger breaths – to cool their bodies. The late Alan Newsome, a senior CSIRO researcher, also did pioneering research that found high temperatures reduced the fertility of male red kangaroos. Has anyone looked at the impact of temperature extremes on mortality rates in eastern greys? Is there a link between drought and increased gut parasite burdens?

Wildlife ecology should not be the domain of popular myth, casual speculation or media manipulation. It is a serious science, requiring mathematically based field work, an understanding of environmental complexities and a formidable intellect. At its best, it’s an enthralling, exhilarating science that’s right up there with the best of astronomy and quantum physics. It’s not about patting critters and taking a stroll through the bush.

As a nation, our politicians are mostly woefully uninformed about our biodiversity, and as a recent Australian Audit office report pointed out, our policy makers often are not fully across the complexities of environmental issues. Does anyone remember that episode of “The West Wing” (it’s in the second series) where the White House deputy chief of staff (Josh Lyman) and the communications director (the usually erudite Toby Ziegler) are describing one of America’s 12 subspecies of lynx as “a kind of possum'” when briefing the president on an emerging environmental issue? There’s also an episode where Josh (a character with a formidable knowledge of political systems) is struggling to establish the difference between a panda and a koala.

Given Australia’s vulnerability to climate change, we can’t afford this kind of muddle-headed confusion among our environmental policy makers.





The yob factor in conservation

29 09 2008

I believe that I am like most people when I say that I am generally annoyed by, but can live with, the yob (a.k.a. bogan, booner, westie, bevan, chigger, chav) culture pervading our society. I can live with the hooning (Why do they believe that pressing the foot 1 cm closer to the floor increases their perceived virility? I extend my curled little finger in response), bad music, mullets (indeed, those are just plain entertainment), their appalling diet, smoking and fashion statements (even more entertaining), and I can even live with their conservative political perspectives. After all, we live in an open and democratic society where one can choose to live anywhere within the yob-wanker spectrum (apologies to T.I.S.M.).

What I find more problematic is the overt anti-environmentalism the yob culture embraces. Sure, every time the petrol price notches up, I smile inside just a little bit at every unheard curse emanating from yobs around the country as they painfully fill their petrol-sucking yob cars with the latest in potential GHG emissions (small justices are hard won). But the real problem lies in the over-exploitation of our already stressed environments from some of our less-than-conscientious fisher friends. Not all recreational fishers are the kind that sport the classic ‘I Fish and I Vote’ stickers (also very amusing1) on the back of their utes, nor are they all convinced that fishing is an inalienable right granted by Poseidon himself. But a lot are.

Case in point, I found this little nugget in a certain state government’s ‘Recreational Fishing Guide‘ by a prominent producer of those petrol-guzzling yob cars:

Excuse me? Yes, you read correctly, the STATE GOVERNMENT’S Recreational Fishing Guide.

Is this really the kind of mentality that the state government is trying to promote amongst its recreational fishing community? Do we really believe that recreational fishing is so innocuous that plainly ridiculous acts that flout even the state’s own regulations are to be encouraged? I’d like to think otherwise, but I am clearly aware that there is high probability that I’ve hit the nail on the head.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve fished many times myself and grew up with a father who would avoid any lake where another person was fishing just to have another lake to himself. I like fish and enjoy eating freshly caught ones when I can (which is not very often because I do not own a boat or fishing gear).

So, what’s the problem? This brings me to the core of this post and the reason I started with the uncharacteristic rant. Most fisheries around the world are already in big trouble (see previous post on this subject here), so when the number of intense-use recreational fishers is high, we have recipe for disaster.

A paper by Cooke & Cowx that appeared in 2004 entitled The role of recreational fishing in global fish crises gets my vote for the Potential list here at ConservationBytes.com. This paper identified that recreational fishing could account for as much as 12 % of the global fish harvest and lead to severe declines in fish populations, especially where participation is high and commercial fisheries operate in tandem. Again, a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. Lewin and colleagues in 2006 reiterated the point and demonstrated that recreational fishing must be tightly managed and good practices encouraged to avoid localised depletions and population declines.

So when state agencies encourage yobs to behave in ways our little advert implies (I can hear the ‘YEAHS and ‘WOOHOOS’ too clearly), we are failing to manage our tragic common goods correctly and to promote good practice. Indeed, for the very reason that good behaviour ensures a longer and more fulfilling future of angling for everyone, shouldn’t we be promoting the ‘less-is-more’ mantra more aggressively?

CJA Bradshaw

1I’ve always wondered about how people who put ‘I XXXX and I Vote’ stickers on their cars work through the logic. I eat toast and I vote, and I like rugby and I vote, and I detest listening to country music and I vote. I just ‘vote’ for the least idiotic of the choices presented before me at each election.

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