How to improve (South Australia’s) biodiversity prospects

9 04 2019

Figure 2 (from the article). Overlaying the South Australia’s Protected Areas boundary data with the Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia layer indicates that 73.2% of the total protected area (excluding Indigenous Protected Areas) in South Australia lies in the arid biogeographic regions of Great Victoria Desert (21.1%), Channel Country (15.2%), Simpson Strzelecki Dunefields (14.0%), Nullarbor (9.8%), Stony Plains (6.6%), Gawler (6.0%), and Hampton (0.5%). The total biogeographic-region area covered by the remaining Conservation Reserves amounts to 26.2%. Background blue shading indicates relative average annual rainfall.

If you read regularly, you’ll know that late last year I blogged about the South Australia 2108 State of the Environment Report for which I was commissioned to write an ‘overview‘ of the State’s terrestrial biodiversity.

At the time I whinged that not many people seemed to take notice (something I should be used to by now in the age of extremism and not giving a tinker’s about the future health of the planet — but I digress), but it seems that quietly, quietly, at least people with some policy influence here are starting to listen.

Not satisfied with merely having my report sit on the virtual shelves at the SA Environment Protection Authority, I decided that I should probably flesh out the report and turn it into a full, peer-reviewed article.

Well, I’ve just done that, with the article now published online in Rethinking Ecology as a Perspective paper.

The paper is chock-a-block with all the same sorts of points I covered last year, but there’s a lot more, and it’s also a lot better referenced and logically sequenced.

Read the rest of this entry »

How to fix a broken river

5 04 2019


It seems that most of what I do these days is measure, model, or otherwise quantify environmental damage. While I dabble in restoration, occasionally I’m involved in a project that really can make a positive difference.

If you’re an Australian, you’ll know a thing or two about just how much of a clusterfuck our biggest river system has turned into. From mismanagement, to outright theft, to lobbyist-driven over-exploitation, to climate change itself, the Murray-Darling system is now in a right mess.

So, I’ll pretext this post with a caveat — no amount of ecological restoration can ‘fix’ a compromised river if there’s no water in it. Goes without saying, really.

But, if you do have water, then there are things one can do to promote populations of various creatures living in it, like fish.

Dubbed the ‘honeypot effect’ — we have just shown that providing woody habitat, or ‘snags’, for native fish in the Murray River increases population size. Read the rest of this entry »

Biodiversity is everyone’s responsibility

13 07 2018

Workspace: Team Of Diverse Workers Put Hands TogetherI’m not sure if many South Australians are aware of this, but the Parliamentary Inquiry into Biodiversity by the Environment, Resources and Development Committee presented a report to the 53rd Parliament of South Australia in March 2017. I thought it worthwhile reproducing their executive summary here on (I’ve highlighted the text that I deem to be rather insightful and simultaneously damning from our own elected government representatives):

This report summarises the findings and recommendations of the South Australian Parliament’s Environment, Resources and Development Committee’s inquiry into biodiversity in South Australia. Specifically, the inquiry investigated the regulatory and policy framework to determine whether it appropriately supports terrestrial and marine ecological processes, biodiversity values and abates species extinction.

The Committee found that in spite of the efforts of the State and Federal governments, industry and private landholders in South Australia, the condition of biodiversity in the State continues to decline. Species extinctions have occurred in the past and a further “extinction debt” still exists. There is no reason to believe that this trend will improve without a change to the way we approach biodiversity conservation.

A key theme to emerge from the Inquiry is that biodiversity conservation needs to be everyone’s responsibility; State and Federal government, industry, the broader community, and private landholders.

This also means that biodiversity conservation needs to occur across both public and private land, with actions coordinated at a landscape scale.

Making biodiversity conservation everyone’s responsibility requires a range of measures, including legislative reform, improved management of threats and greater involvement of the community. The provision of greater resources would yield faster results.

This report has focused on several key themes that emerged from submissions to the Inquiry.

Regulating for better biodiversity – South Australia’s legislative framework

South Australia’s current legislative framework does not provide for optimum biodiversity outcomes.

Three key issues contribute to this –

  • an out-of-date suite of environmental legislation that lacks cohesion and consistency, particularly regarding enforcement and compliance provisions;
  • inadequate and incomplete processes for identifying and protecting at-risk elements that need special measures (e.g. for protection of specific threatened species and ecological communities); and
  • inadequate consideration of biodiversity conservation in legislation that regulates human activities. In particular, there is a lack of cohesion between the environmental legislative and policy framework and land use planning, assessment and approval.
  • Statutory fragmentation of biodiversity considerations – that is, consideration of different aspects of biodiversity under different pieces of legislation – results in lack of cohesion and consistency, duplication and inefficiency, and makes it difficult to implement a landscape approach or to identify strategic opportunities and risks.

Taken as a whole, current enforcement provisions do not provide for effective and proportionate compliance action. Enforcement and compliance provisions across the relevant legislation are uneven in their approach. For example, penalties appear to be disproportionate and not risk-based (although there are some exceptions). Modern enforcement tools such as compliance orders, civil remedies and alternative penalties (such as administrative penalties, payment of damages including exemplary damages, remediation orders etc) are not included in all relevant legislation. There is some duplication in offences and inconsistency in the types of sanctions and penalty ranges.

There is an urgent need to amend the legislative framework to support any attempt to improve biodiversity outcomes.

The best approach will be based on clear, shared responsibility for biodiversity outcomes, supported by individual accountability. However, such a change will require policy development and drive.

To ensure forward momentum and improvements in the short term while developing the policy settings to support such a step-change, a staged approach could be implemented. There are various ways this could be achieved.

The Committee suggests a 3-stage approach to reforming the legislative framework. The Committee recommends the creation of a Biodiversity Expert Panel that is responsible for advancing this 3-stage approach.

  1. The first stage will involve amendments to improve operation and effectiveness of the regulatory regime within current policy settings, acknowledging that as a result of Stage 3, provisions may be altered or moved into different pieces of legislation. Amendments generally would be to the existing ‘environmental’ Acts, and primarily to the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 and Native Vegetation Act 1991. They would include many of the specific areas for amendment identified in EDO submissions (2011 & 2015) as well as in the SA Government submission, for example, beginning with amendments to improve current environmental legislation.
  2. Stage 2 would progress to amendments to improve integration between Acts and improve support for landholders and community participation.
  3. Stage 3 would implement a system whereby all resource use and management would be managed by one piece of legislation, with protection of biodiversity and sustainable development at its core. Provisions for protected area management, and for the scientific work involved in identifying threatened species and communities, may be contained in separate legislation.

Threats, ecological resilience and restoration

The State’s native biodiversity is facing myriad of current threats, including habitat loss and fragmentation (due to development and changing land-use), pest plants and animals, and control burn regimes. There is a need for more stringent vegetation protection, better informed and enacted control and management strategies of known pest plants and animals, and a revision of burning regimes.

Future threats to the State’s biodiversity will be largely driven by climate change impacts and the interaction with existing major threats (e.g. urbanisation and changing land use). Adequately preparing for and managing such future threats will require knowledge of projected changes and pro-active preparation for such changes.

Working with the community

Involvement of the community is an essential part of any biodiversity conservation strategy for the State. It is a foundation stone for moving to a point where biodiversity conservation is everyone’s business.

Community engagement will become increasingly important for biodiversity conservation, especially given the growing role of volunteers to support works on public land as well as the voluntary conservation efforts of private landholders. The expanding role of volunteers reenforces that biodiversity conservation is everyone’s business.

South Australia’s approach to biodiversity conversation on private land needs to be reinvigorated.

Cross cutting themes

There were several cross cutting themes identified in submissions to the Inquiry. There was broad recognition of the strong cultural and historic significance of elements of biodiversity to Aboriginal people, and that this is often poorly understood outside those communities. Continuing to identify ways for Aboriginal people to contribute to land and water management in South Australia remains a priority.

With respect to knowledge generation, critical knowledge gaps exist that need to be filled and existing knowledge is not being adequately understood, communicated or applied. From a resourcing perspective, there is concern that insufficient funds are being allocated to biodiversity conservation, which is affecting work on public and private lands.

The management of over-abundant species in South Australia remains a challenge, noting the recent impacts of long-nose fur seals in the Lower Lakes and Coorong, and ongoing concerns regarding the impact of animals such as little corellas and some species of kangaroos on negative vegetation.


King for a day – what conservation policies would you make?

29 11 2013

CrownI have been thinking a lot lately about poor governance and bad choices when it comes to biodiversity conservation policy. Perhaps its all that latent anger arising from blinkered, backward policies recently implemented by conservative state and national governments in Australia and elsewhere that leads me to contemplate: What would I do if I had the power to change policy?

While I am certain I have neither the experience or complete knowledge to balance national budgets, ensure prosperity and maintain the health of an entire country, I do have some ideas about what we’re doing wrong conservation-wise, and how we could potentially fix things. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list – it is more a discussion point where people can suggest their own ideas.

So here are 16 things I’d change or implement (mainly in Australia) if I were king for a day:

Read the rest of this entry »

Blog Action Day 2010 – Water neutrality and its biodiversity benefits

16 10 2010

In my little bid to participate in’s Blog Action Day 2010 – Water, I’ve re-hashed a post from 2008 on ‘water neutrality’. This will also benefit my recently joined readers, and re-invigorate a concept I don’t think has received nearly enough attention globally (or even in parched Australia where I live). So here we go:

The world’s freshwater ecosystems are in trouble. We’ve extracted, poisoned, polluted, damned and diverted a large proportion of the finite (and rather small!) amount of freshwater on the planet. Now, most people might immediately see the problem here from a selfish perspective – no clean, abundant water source = human disease, suffering and death. Definitely something to avoid, and a problem that all Australians are facing (i.e., it’s not just restricted to developing nations). Just look at the Murray-Darling problem.

In addition to affecting our own personal well-being, freshwater ecosystems are thought to support over 10000 fish species worldwide (see also a recent post on Africa’s freshwater biodiversity’s susceptibility to climate change), and the majority of amphibians and aquatic reptiles. Current estimates suggest that about 1/3 of all vertebrate biodiversity (in this case, number of species) is confined to freshwater. As an example, the Mekong River system alone is thought to support up to 1700 different species of fish.

So, what are some of the ways forward? The concept of ‘water neutrality’ is essentially the wet version of carbon neutrality. It basically means that water usage can be offset by interventions to improve freshwater habitats and supply. Read the rest of this entry »

The lost world – freshwater biodiversity conservation

6 09 2010

Even the most obtuse, right-wing, head-in-the-sand, consumption-driven, anti-environment yob would at least admit that they’ve heard of forest conservation, the plight of whales (more on that little waste of conservation resources later) and climate change. Whether or not they believe these issues are important (or even occurring) is beside the point – the fact that this particular auto-sodomist I’ve described is aware of the issues is at least testament to growing concern among the general populace.

But so many issues in conservation science go unnoticed even by the most environmentally aware. Today’s post covers just one topic (I’ve covered others, such as mangroves and kelp forests) – freshwater biodiversity.

The issue is brought to light by a paper recently published online in Conservation Letters by Thieme and colleagues entitled Exposure of Africa’s freshwater biodiversity to a changing climate.

Sure, many people are starting to get very worried about freshwater availability for human consumption (and this couldn’t be more of an issue in Australia at the moment) – and I fully agree that we should be worried. However, let’s not forget that so many species other than humans depend on healthy freshwater ecosystems to persist, which feed back in turn to human benefits through freshwater filtering, fisheries production and arable soil accumulation.

Just like for the provision of human uses (irrigation, direct water consumption, etc.), a freshwater system’s flow regime is paramount for maintaining its biodiversity. If you stuff up the flow regime too much, then regardless of the amount of total water available, biodiversity will suffer accordingly.

Glen Canyon Dam

Image by James Marvin Phelps (mandj98) via Flickr

Thieme and colleagues focus specifically on African freshwater systems, but the same problems are being seen worldwide (e.g., Australia’s Murray-Darling system, North America’s Colorado River system). And this is only going to get worse as climate change robs certain areas of historical rainfall. To address the gap in knowledge, the authors used modelled changes in mean annual runoff and discharge to determine fish species affected by 2050.

The discharge/runoff results were: Read the rest of this entry »

Fishing for conservation

3 04 2009

Here’s a guest post from one of my newest PhD students, Jarod Lyon of the Arthur Rylah Institute in Victoria. He’s introducing some of his ongoing work and how he incorporates anglers into conservation research.

As most conservationists know, snags (fallen trees and branches in rivers) are the riverine equivalent of marine reefs, providing critical habitat for many plants and animals, from microscopic bacteria, fungi and algae through to large native fish. They are the places where the greatest numbers and diversity of organisms occur in lowland sections of rivers. Their presence has an important influence on the overall health of these rivers.

Murray River, Australia
Figure 1

Ins southern Australia, Murray cod, trout cod and golden perch are three iconic fish species that occur in the Murray River (Figure 1). Recent investigations into the ecology of these species have demonstrated a strong dependence on the presence of snags – a relationship well-known to recreational anglers who target both Murray cod and golden perch. Unfortunately, the abundance of these species has declined over the past 100 years and they are now considered threatened. Excessive removal of snags has been identified as a primary cause for this decline. For example, in the Lake Hume to Lake Mulwala reach of the Murray River, over 25000 snags were removed in the 1970s and 1980s to improve the passage of water between Lake Hume and the large irrigation channels at Yarrawonga.

Figure 2
Figure 2

The largest resnagging project ever undertaken in Australia is now in full swing. It aims to reverse the legacy of clearing snags that has occurred along the Murray reaches since European settlement. The resnagging is occurring in the Hume-Mulwala reach of the Murray using trees that were cleared for the Hume Highway extension between Albury and Tarcutta, and will create substantially more physical habitat for native fish in this reach of the river. By creating this habitat, the size of the native fish population in this reach is expected to increase thereby improving the conservation status of the native species present, and improving the quality of the recreational fishery for native species (particularly Murray cod and golden perch). It is the largest project of its kind ever undertaken in Australia, and is a great step towards recovering fish populations. The project is funded under the Murray Darling Basin Commission‘s Living Murray Program, and is being undertaken by a variety of state and national organisations, in particular NSW Department of Primary Industries and Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE).

To ensure that the resnagging is having a beneficial effect on the numbers of native fish in the reach, a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation program is being implemented by scientists from the DSE’s Arthur Rylah Institute. This program is determining whether an increase in the size of the native fish populations is the result of:

  • Increased recruitment in the reach
  • Increased survival of adults in the reach
  • Increased immigration of adults and juveniles form Lake Mulwala and the Ovens River
  • Decreased emigration form the reach

To measure these changes, the fish populations between Hume Dam and Lake Mulwala are being surveyed once a year to determine the population size and level of recruitment. For the purpose of comparison, surveying between Yarrawonga and Tocumwal, in the lower Ovens River, and in Lake Mulwala, is also being undertaken.

Figure 2
Figure 3

Some of the fish caught (Figure 2) will be tagged with an external tag, internal tag or radio transmitter (Figures 3 & 4). All tags have a unique number that identifies the individual. The recapture of these individuals, both by researchers and by anglers, allows survival and movement patterns to be measured.

The external tags are plastic polymer tags and are easily visible, protruding from the dorsal fin area. These tags are used to allow information from anglers to be directly used in the monitoring. A phone number is printed on each tag and when anglers call this number to report that they have caught a tagged fish, this provides valuable information on the not only fish survival and growth, but also the performance of the recreational fishery. These tags have a lifespan of 2-5 years. Anglers who call in tag information are also eligible for a reward (usually a stubby holder or lure) and get sent a certificate which gives details of the history of the fish which they have captured and reported.

The internal tags are implanted into the area to the front of the pectoral fin, are not visible, and unlike the external tags, are permanent. The tags are passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags (Figure 4), similar to those used in the pet and livestock industry. The tags are important as they allow a long-term record of fish survival, growth and movement to be measured. Fishways across the Murray Darling Basin are increasingly being installed with readers that can detect these tags. This can give researchers valuable information on long-range movements. For example, one fish (a 20-kg Murray cod) that was tagged in the Murray river near Corowa, was picked up on a PIT tag reader at the bottom of the Torrumbarry Weir fishway – a fair feat when you consider that this fish has had to get through both Mulwala and Torrumbarry Weirs, as well as travel a distance of over 200 river km downstream!

Figure 3
Figure 4

Radio transmitters are surgically inserted into the body cavity of the fish (Figure 3). These tags emit a radio signal that can be tracked continuously (Figure 5), and allow a rapid assessment of the movements (i.e., emigration and immigration rates) of a population to be determined. The tags are also detected by an array of 18 logging stations located along the river between Lake Hume and Barmah (Figure 1). Approximately 1000 radio tags will be implanted over the life of the project – making it possibly the largest radio-tagging program in the country.

If you catch a tagged fish, please record the type of fish, its number, its length (and its weight if possible) and the location of its capture and report this information on the phone number printed on the tag. These angler records improve the quality of the data collected and reporting of angler captures is encouraged through the rewards program.

As well as the general tag return program, a more targeted “Research Angler Program” is being undertaken. The angler program commenced operations in July 2007. The project was developed to assist with the scientific monitoring and communication requirements of the native fish habitat restoration project.

This section of the monitoring recognises that local anglers can contribute information about the state of native fish in the River Murray by recording their fishing effort and the amount of fish captured. Such information, in addition to greatly increasing the community awareness of the monitoring program, also adds another ‘string to the monitoring bow’ in that it will form a long-term dataset of fish captures, which can eventually be linked to the resnagging effort. The information gathered will be entered into a database and analysed to help assess changes in fish population size in relation to the habitat rehabilitation project.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Instream woody habitat is a vital component to the lifecycle of Murray Cod and the endangered trout cod. The resnagging of the River Murray – Hume Dam to Yarrawonga, will conserve and enhance native fish communities. Continual monitoring and interactions with the local angling fraternity is a crucial part of the success of this project.

The anglers have logbooks and have been trained in removing the otoliths, which are the earbones, from fish that they are taking for the table. We can then use the otoliths to determine the age and growth of the fish in response to the resnagging work.

Since December 2007 the fishers with the resnagging Angler Monitoring Program have captured over 65 Murray Cod, with over 95% of these fish released. Anglers have caught and released other native species such as golden perch and the endangered trout cod.

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