The big comeback: it's time to declare victory for Australian humpback whale conservation

Lars Bejder, Murdoch University; Ari Friedlaender, Oregon State University; David Johnston, Duke University, and Joshua Smith, Murdoch University

When it comes to conservation, good news is pretty thin on the ground – and the ocean, for that matter. We have grown much more used to hearing about marine species that face extinction, decline or negative impacts than about those that are thriving. But if we are to avoid getting demoralised, conservation biology needs victories to celebrate.

So here’s one: the remarkable recovery of humpback whales that breed in Australian waters. Our review of the available data, published today in Marine Policy, suggests that humpback whale populations in Australian waters have recovered to the extent that we should consider downlisting them from the official list of threatened species.

The humpback whale should be a cause for optimism and hope. It’s an important counterbalance to the seemingly relentless communication of marine conservation problems with little in the way of good news. We hope this kind of optimism will convince politicians and the public that conservation problems can indeed be solved, and to stay dedicated to making that happen.

Turning the tide

Australia has one of the highest rates of species extinction in the world. But despite this, the past decade has seen rare examples of animals that are rebounding and thriving.

Humpback whales are one such example. They are listed as “vulnerable” on Australia’s official list of threatened species, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

But our review, led by Michelle Bejder of BMT Oceanica and based on the best available scientific data, suggests that humpback whales no longer need to be on the EPBC Act’s Threatened Species list. Both the east and west Australia populations of humpback whales have recovered substantially from the damage done in the commercial whaling era (roughly from 1912 to 1972).

As of 2012, Australia’s east coast humpback population was at 63% of the pre-whaling-era level. The west coast population had bounced back to 90%. Australian humpback whale populations are increasing at remarkable rates: 9% a year for the west coast population and 10% a year for the east coast – the fastest documented increases worldwide.

A recent global assessment of humpback whales suggested that nine populations from around the world (including the east and west Australian populations) are no longer at risk of extinction. This is to be expected when exploitation through commercial whaling is replaced with conservation legislation (both in Australia and worldwide). Though we don’t quite fully understand the biological forces driving this extraordinary population increase, it’s fair to say that the removal of the dominant negative human pressure has been a huge factor.

On the rise: humpback whale populations are rebounding at a startling rate.
Ari S. Friedlaender (under NMFS permit), Author provided

We believe that conservation biologists have a responsibility to protect species that are in peril by providing a sound, scientific basis for effective management. It therefore follows that we also have a responsibility to present information on recovering populations. The listing of threatened species under the EPBC Act is a dynamic process that is periodically assessed to determine the most appropriate management actions – so if species no longer needs to be on the list we should say so.

The future challenge will be to protect a marine environment that contains growing humpback whale populations and to develop alternative approaches to ecological sustainability. The history of environmental protection is based on saving depleted species, with very little guidance on how to manage recovering and recovered ones.

If humpback whales are downlisted from the threatened species list, the EPBC Act would still protect them from significant impacts because migratory species are deemed under the Act to be nationally significant. Beyond Australia, the International Whaling Commission manages the global moratorium on commercial whaling, which is essential for the humpback whales’ recovery to continue.

Management efforts must now balance the need to ensure humpback whale growth and recovery within a marine environment that is also expanding with industrial and exploration activities. There will be increases in interactions with ocean users, including acoustic disturbance from noise, collisions with vessels, entanglements in fishing gear, habitat destruction from coastal development, and interactions with the whale-watching industry. It will be vital to gain public support to help maintain the growth and recovery of Australian humpback whales and prevent future population declines.

Ocean optimism

The recovered humpback whale population could bring a positive shift in scientific research throughout Australia. If Australian humpback whales are removed from the list of threatened species, one of the most beneficial consequences could be the reprioritisation of research and funding to support other species that are at a greater risk.

Hopefully, other animal species such as the threatened blue whale, the understudied Australian snubfin and Australian humpback dolphins might get the same chance of scientific scrutiny that has been afforded to humpback whales.

For the first time in more than a generation, Australia’s iconic humpback whales have become a symbol of both hope and optimism for marine conservation, providing a unique opportunity to celebrate successful scientific and management actions that protect marine species. Optimism in conservation biology (which even has its own social media hashtag, #OceanOptimism) is essential to encourage politicians and the public to solve conservation problems.

Around the world, many marine mammal populations remain in peril, and conservation biologists should not detract from these cases. But we should still highlight the successes, as they provide hope that ongoing conservation actions can prevail. Ultimately, inspirational examples such as humpback whales can motivate people to use ocean resources wisely and to take sustainable and effective actions to safeguard marine wildlife for the future.

This article was written with the assistance of Michelle Bejder, a marine science consultant with BMT Oceanica and lead author of the Marine Policy review.

The Conversation

Lars Bejder is Professor, Cetacean Research Unit, Murdoch University at Murdoch University.
Ari Friedlaender is Associate Professor, Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University.
David Johnston is Assistant Professor, Marine Conservation Ecology at Duke University.
Joshua Smith is Postdoctoral Researcher at Murdoch University.

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Loving emails show there's more to trees than ecosystem services

Dave Kendal, University of Melbourne; Anna Wilson, University of Melbourne, and Lilian Pearce, Australian National University

The internet exploded recently with news that you can email trees in Melbourne. For the last two years, residents and visitors have sent thousands of emails to their favourite tree, particularly one much-loved golden elm.

“I see you every morning, watch you change with the seasons. It makes me happy knowing you are there,” emailed one resident.

At first glance, the idea of emailing a tree can seem a strange and wacky thing, but this email is one of thousands the City of Melbourne has received via its Urban Forest Visual which maps every public tree in the City.

The fact that Melburnians have embraced the notion of emailing a tree is no surprise. We have been passionate about trees in cities for a long time.

In 1871, a correspondent to Melbourne’s Argus argued that more trees were needed:

The beauty of the city, its coolness, its freedom from ground damp (which the trees would absorb), street currents of air, would all be enhanced; the expense and horrid ugliness of verandahs would be saved, and our taste would be complimented.

Our research explores the how people see and think about nature, sometimes trees and garden plants, but also weeds, “ferals”, and native plants and animals. This research shows consistently that nature is really important to people for many different reasons, and always in ways that differ from experts and professionals.

More trees in cities

Around the world, many cities have been undertaking massive urban tree expansion and renewal programs. Million Tree initiatives have begun in many cities including Los Angeles, New York and Shanghai. These aim primarily to plant more trees, but also manage the resilience of the forest by increasing species diversity, and encourage community participation in choosing locations and kinds of tree, and stewardship by adopting and caring for trees.

The City of Melbourne’s urban forest program is also using cutting-edge research to increase tree canopy cover, manage diversity in the forest, and reduce heat in summer. Yet it is perhaps through new ways of valuing trees, and through community engagement programs such as emailing a tree, that the City of Melbourne is being most innovative.

Why do we value trees?

By valuing, we mean determining the importance of trees. Trees have always been valued by urban people, but the way they have justified their value has constantly changed.

Some of Melbourne’s most frenzied tree planting occurred during the late 19th and early 20th century based on arguments that valued trees for “beautifying” the city, a concept that included improving human morality and mental health.

In recent decades, the emergence of the Ecosystem Services framework has allowed the benefits provided by trees such as temperature reduction, carbon sequestration and pollution interception to be quantified and valued in dollar terms. This thinking has led to recent initiatives such as the price-tagging of trees.

Yet the price of a tree tells us only a little about how important trees are to people. Recent community engagement work that we have been doing with the City of Melbourne using social psychology methods has identified multiple ways that the public values urban trees: for their contribution to civic identity, as nature, for their cultural heritage, to improve the community, and for their life sustaining properties.

It is clear that all these values need to be well represented in the urban forest to satisfy the community. This work has used a variety of methods such as questionnaires, value mapping, and photo sorts that have proven to be useful in helping the community understand the issues behind the urban forest program, and perhaps more importantly, to involve the community in decision making.

People’s emails to trees could provide some surprising insights into how people relate to trees, rather than just benefit from them. The emotional basis of this relationship is very strong (such as “I very fond of you [sic]”, “I miss you”, “It makes me happy knowing you are there”, and “It saddens me that your passing will be sooner than my own”).

Although the framing of trees as “ecosystems services” or “green infrastructure” are undoubtedly useful tools for directing the wheels of urban development, there is real power in understanding people’s emotional relationship with trees. Healthy, liveable and lovable cities need to allow people’s subtle and nuanced spiritual and emotional bond with trees to thrive.

The Conversation

Dave Kendal is Researcher, The Australian Research Centre for Urban Ecology at University of Melbourne.
Anna Wilson is Research historian, Australian Research Council for Urban Ecology at University of Melbourne.
Lilian Pearce is PhD Candidate, Australian National University & Research Assistant, Australian Research Council for Urban Ecology at Australian National University.

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50% renewable energy would put Australia in line with leading nations

John Mathews

Opposition leader Bill Shorten told the Labor Party conference this morning that the party’s policy should be for 50% of electricity to come from renewables by 2030.

This would bring Australia abreast with its international competitors such as California, with its recently announced target of 50% of electricity from renewables by 2030, and Germany, where the Energiewende (“energy transformation”) will see the country commit to 40-45% non-nuclear green power by 2020, and 55-60% by 2035.

Shorten’s move is a major break with previous ALP policy, and promises to be so effective in building a new power sector to eclipse the present fossil-fuelled sector that it already has the conservative side of politics foaming at the mouth. This week predictably saw the return of the “Electricity Bill Shorten” name-calling, and The Australian newspaper branded the renewables policy “Labor’s loony turn”.

It is such a break with previous climate policy because it sets a target for building renewable energy capacity, rather than targeting notional carbon reductions by such and such a date without specifying how to get there. If adopted, this policy would allow Labor finally to free itself of the politically damaging obsession with using carbon pricing – either in the form of a carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme – as its principal green platform.

Although Labor is also committed to emissions trading, renewable energy offers the more politically straightforward approach of fast-tracking investment in the renewables sector, providing the business certainty that the Abbott government has been so keen to break.

This was always the missing piece in Labor’s green strategy – eclipsed by its continuing commitment to support Australia’s exports of coal, gas and iron ore to the rising industrial powers of Asia, particularly China. The new policy represents a switch from a 20th-century obsession with fossil-fuel mining and export, to a 21st-century focus on creating energy security through renewables.

It promises to be effective for the same reason that Germany’s or California’s commitment to swing behind a power sector fuelled by renewables is effective. These targets are really about industry strategy, with a favourable side-effect that they also promise to lower carbon emissions. Denmark’s 2012 commitment to renewable power using wind energy (with a conservative target of 50% renewables by 2020) has already created the world’s number-one wind power company, Vestas. Support for renewables is a smart industry strategy.

China is, of course, the world leader in this transition, with a commitment to source 30% of electricity from renewables by 2020. China’s Energy Development Strategic Action Plan (2014–2020) specifies limits for overall energy and coal consumption, and at the same time sets targets for renewable energy capacity as reaching 350 gigawatts, 200 GW and 100 GW respectively for hydro, wind and solar, plus 58 GW for nuclear.

These are by far the most ambitious targets in the world. China’s current electric power capacity stands at 1,360 GW, with hydro, wind and solar accounting for 424 GW – a total that grew by 51 GW in 2014 (or roughly a 1-GW non-thermal power station each week). By contrast, thermal generation of electricity (from coal) actually shrank in 2014.

What these countries’ leaders understand, and what gives this new policy signal from the ALP leadership real teeth, is that renewable energy promises to be one of the leading industries of the 21st century. These industries promise not just reliable and secure energy, but also – for the countries smart enough to take advantage of the opportunities – industrial and manufacturing strength, exports, technological innovation and jobs. All of this comes with the convenient side-effect of reducing carbon emissions, which while welcome, does not have to be the main driver of the policy shift.

To those who think such an energy transformation is inconceivable, Germany and China stand as major correctives, with Japan hovering as another major contender. Germany abandoned its nuclear industry after Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, and instead adopted aggressive targets for renewables, backed by a feed-in tariffs scheme which helped to fund the transition from consumers’ energy bills, not from public fiscal sources.

The usual canards against renewables are already being trotted out by those who criticise their advance. The Australian’s environment editor Graham Lloyd wrote yesterday that renewables don’t offer the same “density” of energy as their fossil-fuelled and nuclear competitors – ignoring the point that it is their very diffuseness that makes them so attractive. Solar and wind energy can be generated almost anywhere, while fossil-fuelled and nuclear sources have to be centralized and suffer rigidities as a result.

Lloyd also claimed that energy storage and intermittency are “technological barriers” that make the transition to renewables difficult, along with cost barriers. But the real experience of Germany and China provide a very different perspective. These two countries, through their commitment to large-scale renewable energy, have been driving down costs. Solar panel prices globally have tumbled by 80% over the past few years, driven largely by scaling up production in China and to some extent in Germany.

Australia stands to benefit from these cost decreases as policy shifts to supporting a renewables-driven power system. These costs refer to production costs, or wholesale costs, driven by the learning curves that are a feature of all manufacturing industries. What the existing power producers actually charge consumers is another matter altogether.

But as the political debate comes to focus on the real production costs of electricity, so the position of the incumbent power producers will prove to be untenable.

The Conversation

John Mathews is Professor of Strategic Management, Macquarie Graduate School of Management at Macquarie University.

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