Australia’s threatened bats need protection from a silent killer: white-nose syndrome



Three North American little brown bats with signs of white-nose syndrome, which is virtually certain to hit Australian bats without further action.
KDFWR/Terry Derting, CC BY-SA

Christopher Turbill, Western Sydney University and Justin Welbergen, Western Sydney University

We already know how deadly this summer’s fires have been for mammals, birds, and reptiles across Australia. But beyond this bushfire season, many of those same species – including our bats, which make up around a quarter of all Australian mammal species – are facing another devastating threat to their survival.

White‐nose syndrome has recently decimated bat populations across North America. While the fungal pathogen responsible for this disease, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, currently doesn’t occur in Australia, the fungus is virtually certain to jump continents in the next decade.

Our recent research, published in the journal Austral Ecology, attempted to quantify this risk – and the results are not encouraging. Up to eight bat species occupy caves in south-eastern Australia that provide conditions suitable for the fungus to grow.

Large parts of southern Australia provides cave habitat suitable for growth by the cold-loving fungus responsible for white-nose syndrome.
Turbill & Welbergen 2019

Even before this summer’s fires, seven of those types of bats were listed on state or federal legislation as threatened with extinction. This includes the critically endangered southern bent-winged bat (Miniopterus orianae bassanii), a species whose caves would all provide optimal conditions for growth of the fungus.

All caves occupied by the critically endangered southern bent-winged bat provide ideal thermal conditions for white-nose syndrome.
Dr Lindy Lumsden

Millions of bats wiped out in North America

White-nose syndrome was first detected in the United States in 2006 at a popular tourist cave in the state of New York. Since then, the disease has spread across North America, killing millions of bats in its wake, with many local populations experiencing 90 to 100% mortality.

The novel pathogen hypothesis explains why P. destructans has such catastrophic impacts on North American bats: the immune system of these species is evolutionarily naive to this fungal attack. Accordingly, in Europe and Asia, where P. destructans is endemic and widespread, few bats exhibit white‐nose syndrome and mortalities are rare.

Australia’s unique wildlife is inherently at risk from invasive novel pathogens because of its long‐term biogeographical isolation. Thus Australian bats, like their distant North American relatives, probably lack an effective immune response to P. destructans and would be susceptible to developing white-nose syndrome.

Since its detection in the United States in 2006, white-nose syndrome has received extensive media attention globally.

Hibernation is the key risk period

Most fungal pathogens grow best at cool temperatures, and a high body temperature in mammals and birds provides an effective barrier against fungal diseases. The fungus causing white-nose syndrome is also cold-loving, ceasing to grow at temperatures above 20°C. The only time it can infect and kill bats is when they hibernate.

Bats go cold (use torpor) during hibernation to prevent starvation over winter in temperate climates. Hibernating bats that are infected by P. destructans rewarm more frequently than normal. These unscheduled bursts of metabolic heat production prematurely burn up the body fat of overwintering bats. Hence, despite the damage caused by white-nose syndrome to the bat’s skin tissue, they apparently die due to starvation or dehydration.

The infection is easily visible under UV light.
Turner et al. 2014

Hibernation is key to predicting the susceptibility of bat populations to mortality from white-nose syndrome: those with less energy to spare over winter are more at risk. Consequently, white-nose syndrome has fuelled a large research program on the winter ecology and hibernation physiology of North American bats.

Bats in south-eastern Australia do enter a period of winter hibernation, but that is about the extent of what we know. This knowledge gap makes it impossible to predict how they will respond if exposed to P. destructans. Even non-lethal impacts, however, will worsen the extinction-bound trajectory of several cave-roosting species, most notably the eastern and southern bent-winged bats.

What can Australia do?

Given the impending arrival of P. destructans in Australia, and our study’s findings of widespread thermal cave suitability in south-eastern Australia, we urge immediate action. This includes tightening biosecurity measures and gaining missing information on bat biology so we are better prepared for a possible white-nose syndrome epidemic.

The importance of this threat has not been missed by Wildlife Health Australia, which has produced guidelines for reporting and response to incursion. Advice is also available from the Commonwealth. Just recently, white-nose syndrome was listed in the national priority list for exotic environmental pests and diseases, ranking in the top five of native animal diseases and their pathogens.

Cave enthusiasts have also been proactive in alerting members to white-nose syndrome and the risk of accidentally introducing P. destructans, especially when returning from overseas caving adventures. And the Australasian Bat Society – a strong advocate for bat conservation – has alerted the public and government agencies to this potential new threat.

Action now is critical

At present, there is little that would prevent P. destructans from making it its way to Australian caves, despite two years passing since experts assessed the risk of incursion as almost certain.

We need effective measures at all levels, from requiring incoming visitors to identify contact with cave environments, to decontamination procedures at caves popular with international tourists.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s White-nose Syndrome Response Team produced this infographic, including what you can do to help bats.

Predicting the impact of white-nose syndrome on Australian bats is currently not possible because we know so little about their winter biology. We urge the Australian government to fund specific research to gain this information.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has injected more than US$46 million since 2008 into research and fieldwork to address the threat. Australian researchers can use this work to focus on the critical data needed to inform models that predict the vulnerability of local bat populations.

Why we need bats to survive

Bats are incredibly valuable in their own right. But the world needs healthy bat populations: a single insectivorous bat can eat up to half its body mass in insects each night, and together colonies of bats provide a service with an estimated value to the agricultural industry alone in the billions of dollars per year.

We hope this terrible disease will not threaten Australian bats. But the precautionary principle dictates we should plan and act now, assuming the worst-case scenario. Alarm bells are ringing.


Read more: The importance of Australia’s weird and wonderful batsThe Conversation


A selection of Australia’s bat diversity. Top row from left: grey-headed flying-fox; orange leaf-nosed bat; common blossom bat; large-footed myotis. Bottom row: golden-tipped bat; eastern horseshoe bat; common sheath-tailed bat; ghost bat.
Justin Welbergen (grey-headed flying-fox, eastern horseshoe bat); Nicola Hanrahan (ghost bat); Bruce Thomson (golden-tipped bat); Steve Parish & Les Hall for remainder of species

Christopher Turbill, Senior Lecturer in Animal Ecology, Western Sydney University and Justin Welbergen, President of the Australasian Bat Society | Associate Professor of Animal Ecology, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Koala-detecting dogs sniff out flaws in Australia’s threatened species protection



Maya the detection dog was part of a team sniffing out koalas.
Marie Colibri/USC

Romane H. Cristescu, University of the Sunshine Coast; Anthony Schultz, University of the Sunshine Coast; Celine Frere, University of the Sunshine Coast; David Schoeman, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Kylie Scales, University of the Sunshine Coast

In a country like Australia – a wealthy, economically and politically stable nation with multiple environmental laws and comparatively effective governance – the public could be forgiven for assuming that environmental laws are effective in protecting threatened species.

But our new research, published recently in Animal Conservation, used koala-detecting dogs to find vulnerable koalas in places developers assumed they wouldn’t live. This highlights the flaws of environmental protections that prioritise efficiency over accuracy.

The dog squad: from left to right, Baxter, Billie-Jean, Bear, Charlie and Maya sniffed out vulnerable koalas to see how many are living in areas due to be developed in Queensland.
Author provided

Environmental impact assessments

Every new infrastructure project must carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to see whether it will affect a threatened species. If this is the case, the logical next step is to try to avoid this by redesigning the project.

But this rarely happens in reality, as we saw recently for the endangered black-throated finch.




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More often, when the EIA suggests an unavoidable impact the response is to identify mitigation and compensation measures, often in the form of “offsets”. These are swathes of comparable habitat assumed to “compensate” the impacted species for the habitat lost to the development.

To take koalas as an example, developers building houses might be required to buy and secure land to compensate for lost habitat. Or a new road might need fencing and underpasses to allow koalas safe passage across (or under) roads.

Koalas can be found in many environments, from the bush to cities.
Detection Dogs for Conservation, University of the Sunshine Coast

These steps are defined in environmental regulations, and depend on the results from the original EIA.




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Safe passage: we can help save koalas through urban design


An issue of assumptions

With koala numbers still declining, we investigated whether current survey guidelines for EIA were indeed adequate.




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For an EIA to be effective, it is fundamental the environmental impact of a future development can be accurately anticipated and therefore appropriately managed. This relies, as a first step, on quantifying how the project will affect threatened species through ecological surveys of presence and extent of threatened species within the project’s footprint.

There are government guidelines to prescribe how these ecological surveys are performed. Every project has time and budget constraints, and therefore survey guidelines seek efficiency in accurately determining species’ presence.

Dr Romane Cristescu performing a koala survey with detection dog Maya.
Marie Colibri

As such, the Australian guidelines recommend focusing survey effort where there is the highest chance of finding a species of concern for the project. This sounded very logical – until we started testing the underlying assumptions.

We used a very accurate survey method – detection dogs – to locate koala droppings, and therefore identify koala habitat, in the entire footprint of proposed projects across Queensland. We did not target our efforts in areas we expected to be successful – therefore leaving out the bias of other surveys.

Unpredictable koalas

We found koalas did not always behave as one would expect. Targeting effort to certain areas, the “likely” koala habitat, to try increase efficiency risked missing koala hotspots.

In particular, the landscape koalas use is intensely modified by human activity. Koalas, like us, love living on the coast and in rich alluvial plains. That means we unexpectedly found them right in the middle of urban areas, along roads that – because they have the final remaining trees in dense agricultural landscapes – are now (counterintuitively) acting as corridors.

This koala was found in a built-up area not captured by traditional surveys.
Detection Dogs for Conservation, University of the Sunshine Coast



Read more:
Koalas can learn to live the city life if we give them the trees and safe spaces they need


Assumptions about where koalas live can massively underestimate the impact of new infrastructure. In one case study, the habitat defined by recommended survey methods was about 50 times smaller than the size of the habitat actually affected.

If surveys miss or underestimate koala habitat while attempting to measure development impact, then we cannot expect to adequately avoid, mitigate or compensate the damage. If the first step fails, the rest of the process is fatally compromised. And this is bad news for koalas, among many other threatened species.

All parts of the landscape are important

What is needed is a paradigm shift. In a world where humans have affected every ecosystem on Earth, we cannot focus on protecting only pristine, high-quality areas for our threatened species. We can no longer afford to rely on assumptions.

This might seem like a big, and therefore expensive, ask. Yet ecosystems are a common resource owned by all of us, and those who seek to exploit these commons should bear the cost of demonstrating they understand (and therefore can mitigate) their impact.

The alternative is to risk society having to shoulder the environmental debt, as we have seen with abandoned mines.




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The burden of proof should squarely reside with the proponent of a project to study thoroughly the project impact.

A koala found in the wild while performing an Environmental Impact Assessment.
Detection Dogs for Conservation, University of the Sunshine Coast

This is where the issue lies – proponents of projects are under time and budget constraints that push them to look for efficiencies. In this tug of war, the main losers tend to be the threatened species. We argue that this cannot continue, because for many threatened species, there is no longer much room for mistakes.

The environmental regulations that define survey requirements need to prioritise accuracy over efficiency.

A review of Australian’s primary environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is due to begin by October this year. We call on the government to use this opportunity to ensure threatened species are truly protected during development.


The authors would like to gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Dr David Dique and Russell L. Miller to this research and the two original papers this piece is based upon (feature paper and response).The Conversation

Romane H. Cristescu, Posdoc in Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast; Anthony Schultz, PhD Candidate, University of the Sunshine Coast; Celine Frere, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast; David Schoeman, Professor of Global-Change Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Kylie Scales, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dolphin researchers say NZ’s proposed protection plan is flawed and misleading



Hector’s dolphins (Cephalorhynchus hectori) are found only in New Zealand.
Flickr/Scott Thompson, CC BY-ND

Elisabeth Slooten, University of Otago and Steve Dawson, University of Otago

The New Zealand government recently proposed a plan to manage what it considers to be threats to Hector’s dolphins, an endemic species found only in coastal waters. This includes the North Island subspecies Māui dolphin.

Māui dolphins are critically endangered and Hector’s dolphins are endangered. With only an estimated 57 Māui dolphins left, they are literally teetering on the edge of extinction. The population of Hector’s dolphins has declined from 30,000-50,000 to 10,000-15,000 over the past four decades.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and the Department of Conservation (DOC) released a discussion document which includes a complex range of options aimed at improving protection.

But the proposals reveal two important issues – flawed science and management.




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Flawed science

Several problems combine to overestimate the importance of disease and underestimate the importance of bycatch in fishing nets. For many years, MPI and the fishing industry have argued that diseases like toxoplasmosis and brucellosis are the main cause of decline in dolphin populations. This is not shared by New Zealand and international experts, who have been highly sceptical of the evidence. Either way, it is not an argument to ignore dolphin deaths in fishing nets.

Three international experts from the US, UK and Canada examined MPI’s work. They concluded that it is not possible to estimate the number of dolphin deaths from disease, much less claim that this impact is more serious than bycatch. On the other hand, it is easy to obtain an accurate estimate of the number of dolphins dying in fishing nets, as long as enough observers are allocated. MPI has failed to do so. Coverage has been so low that MPI’s estimate of catch rates in trawl fisheries is based on one observed capture.

It would be possible to estimate dolphin deaths in trawl nets if enough observers were allocated.
Supplied, CC BY-ND

The MPI model used in the public discussion document (and described in more detail in supporting materials) is complex, and a one-off. It is based on a “habitat model” of dolphin distribution, but fits actual dolphin sightings poorly.

Another problematic aspect of the method is that there is no clear time frame for the “recovery” of dolphin populations to the specified 90% of the unimpacted population size for Hector’s dolphins and 95% for Maui dolphins. This is one of the first things any decision maker would want to know. Would Māui dolphins be held at the current critically endangered population level for another 50 years? If so, this dramatically increases their chance of extinction.

Flawed management options

The second set of problems concerns the management options themselves. These are a complex mix of regulations that differ from one area to another, for gillnets and trawling. They frankly don’t make sense. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have recommended banning gillnet and trawl fisheries throughout Māui and Hector’s habitats. MPI’s best option for Māui dolphins comes close to this in the middle of the dolphins’ range, but doesn’t go as far offshore in the southern part of their range.

The South Island options for Hector’s dolphin are much worse. MPI’s approach has been to try to reduce the total number of dolphins killed to just below the level they believe is sustainable. MPI has invented its own method for calculating a sustainable number of dolphin deaths, which is much higher than the well-tested method used in the United States. The next step has been to find areas where the greatest number of deaths can be avoided at the least cost to the fishing industry.

Several Hector’s dolphin populations in the South Island are small, but they act as a bridge between larger populations.
Supplied, CC BY-ND

This sounds reasonable, but fixing the problem only in the places where the largest number of dolphins is being killed will have several negative consequences. Experience shows that fishing effort shifts beyond protected areas, merely moving the problem.

For example, MPI’s proposals leave a large gap on the south and east side of Banks Peninsula, in prime dolphin habitat. If the nearby areas are protected, this gap will be fished, and dolphin bycatch will continue unabated. What’s needed is protection of the areas where dolphins live.

MPI’s focus on reducing the total number of dolphin deaths also ignores the fact that it really matters where those deaths occur. Several Hector’s dolphin populations in the South Island are as small, or smaller, than the Māui dolphin population.

Entanglement deaths have much worse consequences in such small populations, which form a bridge between larger populations. Yet they get no attention in the current options. MPI’s proposals would lead to the depletion of small populations, with increased fragmentation and extinction of local populations.

Only one option

If we want to ensure the long-term survival of these dolphins, there is only one realistic solution: to remove fishing methods that kill dolphins from dolphin habitat. The simple solution is to use only dolphin-safe fishing methods in all waters less than 100 metres deep. This means no gillnets or trawling in harbours and other coastal waters up to the 100 metre depth contour.

There is no need to ban recreational or commercial fishing, but we must make the transition to selective, sustainable fishing methods. These include fish traps, longlines and other hook and line methods. Selective, sustainable fishing methods also use less fuel than trawling and avoid impacts of trawling and gillnets on the broader marine environment.

We also need more observers and more cameras on fishing boats. MPI’s estimate of how many dolphins are dying in fishing nets is almost certainly an under-estimate. It depends heavily on assumptions that are not supported by data.

With observers on only about 2-3% of the inshore fishing boats, the chances of missing bycatch altogether is very high. Low observer coverage also means boats can fish differently on the days when they have an observer aboard (for example, avoiding areas where they have caught dolphins).

Selective fishing methods would protect dolphins and the broader marine environment.
Supplied, CC BY-ND

We know what works

Despite getting a poor report card from the international expert panel, MPI presented a virtually unmodified analysis to the IWC’s scientific committee last month. The committee identified most of the same issues and concluded it needed more time to decide whether MPI’s approach is fit for purpose. Meanwhile the IWC reiterated its recommendation, which it has been making for eight years, to ban gillnets and trawl fisheries throughout Māui dolphin habitat.

In the meantime, dolphins continue to be killed in fishing. We need to make decisions on the basis of scientific evidence available now. All of the population surveys, including those funded by MPI, show Hector’s and Māui dolphins live in waters less than 100 metres deep.

The best evidence of what works comes from Banks Peninsula, where the dolphins have had partial protection since 1988, and detailed follow-up research. This population was declining at 6% per year before gillnets were banned to four nautical miles offshore and trawling to two nautical miles. Even though there was no management of disease, the rate of population decline has dropped dramatically to less than 1% per year. If disease were a serious problem, the restrictions on gillnets would have made little difference.

A general principle in conservation is that the longer you wait, the more difficult and more expensive it will be to save a species, and the more likely we are to fail.The Conversation

Elisabeth Slooten, Professor, University of Otago and Steve Dawson, Professor, University of Otago

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Going to the beach this Easter? Here are four ways we’re not being properly protected from jellyfish



File 20190312 86717 1gbl6mw.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Thousands of Queensland beachgoers have been stung by bluebottle jellyfish in recent months.
Shutterstock

Lynda Crowley-Cyr, University of Southern Queensland and Lisa-ann Gershwin, CSIRO

The Easter long weekend marks the last opportunity this year for many Australians to go to the beach as the weather cools down. And for some, particularly in Queensland, it means dodging bluebottle tentacles on the sand.

In just over a month this summer, bluebottles stung more than 22,000 people across Queensland, largely at beaches in the southeast. At least eight of these stings required hospitalisation.

To make matters worse, there were more than twice the number of Irukandji jellyfish stings in Queensland than is typically reported for this time of the season. Irukandjis – relatives of the lethal box jellyfish – cause “Irukandji syndrome”, a life-threatening illness.




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Venomous jellyfish can lurk beneath Australia’s picturesque beaches, including in the Whitsundays. Better public awareness is vital.
alexmgn/Shutterstock

There have also been widespread reports that Irukandjis have been migrating southwards. Many reports have assumed there is a southward migration linked to climate change. But Australia’s jellyfish problem is far more complex. Despite the media hype, there exists no evidence that any tropical Irukandji species has migrated, or is migrating, south.

In addition, many people find it surprising to learn there are Irukandji species native to southern waters. Many cases of Irukandji syndrome have been recorded in Moreton Bay (since 1893), New South Wales (since 1905), and even as far south as Queenscliff, near Geelong (in 1998).

So amid the misinformation, pain and misery, why is this jellyfish problem not more effectively managed?




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What is being done to manage jellyfish risks?

In North Queensland, coastal councils have grappled with jellyfish risk for decades.

At popular beaches in the Cairns, Townsville, and Whitsunday regions, visitors are offered protection in the form of lifeguard patrols and stinger nets. Beaches are also peppered with marine stinger warning signs.

But these strategies are not as effective as intended. Stinger nets, for instance, protect people against the larger, deadlier box jellyfish, but not against the tiny Irukandji.

There’s a lack of public awareness about many aspects of stinger safety. For example, that Irukandji can enter the nets; that Irukandji may be encountered on the reefs and islands as well as in many types of weather conditions; and that both Irukandjis and box jellies are typically very difficult to spot in the water.

To make matters worse, visitors, especially international tourists, are completely unaware of these types of hazards at all. This was confirmed in a recently published study that found marine stinger warning signs are not effectively communicating the true risk.

These signs comply with the requirements established by Standards Australia, but do not fully meet research-based design guidelines for effective warning signage.

The high number of stings that continue to occur at patrolled beaches highlights the need for a redesign.




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Reef operators share a similar problem.

Workplace Health and Safety legislation requires businesses for recreational water activities to do all they reasonably can to protect their staff and customers from health and safety risks.

Jellyfish risk management is only mentioned in the Code of Practice applying to diving and snorkelling businesses. But jellyfish stings continue to be widely reported, raising questions about the effectiveness of this law and its applicability to businesses for other water activities like jet skiing, kayaking, and resort watersports.

Can jellyfish risk management improve?

Absolutely! But only with more data and communication about the risks of jellyfish.

A newly established independent Marine Stinger Authority, based in Cairns, will be well positioned to provide all coastal councils, government and tourism organisations, and the wider public with updated research, information and consultation on jellyfish risks in Australia.




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A warning sign at a Queensland beach.
Shutterstock

It’s a good start, and all current strategies provide a level of protection, but there is room for improvement. We have identified the following points as the highest priority:

1. a national reporting system

A national reporting system to capture real-time data about stings. This would inform coastal councils, tourism operators and other stakeholders so they can better protect the public and meet their duty of care.

Such a system has been partially developed by CSIRO, but this has ceased. We are seeking funding to resume development and implementation of this critical public safety tool.

2. improved warning signage

Modification of jellyfish warning signs should be consistent with research-based design guidelines.

Effective signs should, among other things: be noticeable and include a signal-word panel with “WARNING” in appropriate size and coulours to alert of the hazard; be easy to read, including by international visitors; include a well-designed pictogram indicating scale of hazardous jellyfish; and include hazard information, its consequences and how to avoid it.

Any modifications would also need to be monitored to ensure the signs are properly understood where deployed.

3. an updated Code of Practice

The Work Health and Safety Code of Practice should be amended to include all businesses for recreational water activities and make jellyfish risk management mandatory.

4. safety messaging research

More research is needed to better understand the effectiveness of jellyfish management strategies, taking into account the diverse cultural expectations and
languages of visitors at different destinations.

For this Easter break, here a few safety tips for beachgoers:

  • plan ahead and be aware of local conditions

  • don’t touch bluebottles or other jellyfish (they can still sting out of the water)

  • wear stinger protective clothing like a full body lycra suit (a “rashy”) or neoprene wet suit (especially in tropical areas)

  • pack a bottle of vinegar in your beach bag, boat or boot of the car

  • get local advice on recent stings (from lifeguards or tour operators).The Conversation

Lynda Crowley-Cyr, Associae Professsor of Law, University of Southern Queensland and Lisa-ann Gershwin, Research scientist, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Protecting wetlands helps communities reduce damage from hurricanes and storms



File 20181009 72133 1o1hr7u.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Protecting coastal wetlands, like this slough in Florida’s Everglades National Park, is a cost-effective way to reduce flooding and storm damage.
NPS/C. Rivas

Siddharth Narayan, University of California, Santa Cruz and Michael Beck, University of California, Santa Cruz

2017 was the worst year on record for hurricane damage in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean from Harvey, Irma and Maria. We had hoped for a reprieve this year, but less than a month after Hurricane Florence devastated communities across the Carolinas, Hurricane Michael has struck Florida.

Coastlines are being developed rapidly and intensely in the United States and worldwide. The population of central and south Florida, for example, has grown by 6 million since 1990. Many of these cities and towns face the brunt of damage from hurricanes. In addition, rapid coastal development is destroying natural ecosystems like marshes, mangroves, oyster reefs and coral reefs – resources that help protect us from catastrophes.

In a unique partnership funded by Lloyd’s of London, we worked with colleagues in academia, environmental organizations and the insurance industry to calculate the financial benefits that coastal wetlands provide by reducing storm surge damages from hurricanes. Our study, published in 2017, found that this function is enormously valuable to local communities. It offers new evidence that protecting natural ecosystems is an effective way to reduce risks from coastal storms and flooding.

Coastal wetlands and flood damage reduction: A collaboration between academia, conservation and the risk industry.

The economic value of flood protection from wetlands

Although there is broad understanding that wetlands can protect coastlines, researchers have not explicitly measured how and where these benefits translate into dollar values in terms of reduced risks to people and property. To answer this question, our group worked with experts who understand risk best: insurers and risk modelers.

Using the industry’s storm surge models, we compared the flooding and property damages that occurred with wetlands present during Hurricane Sandy to the damages that would have occurred if these wetlands were lost. First we compared the extent and severity of flooding during Sandy to the flooding that would have happened in a scenario where all coastal wetlands were lost. Then, using high-resolution data on assets in the flooded locations, we measured the property damages for both simulations. The difference in damages – with wetlands and without – gave us an estimate of damages avoided due to the presence of these ecosystems.

Our paper shows that during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, coastal wetlands prevented more than US$625 million in direct property damages by buffering coasts against its storm surge. Across 12 coastal states from Maine to North Carolina, wetlands and marshes reduced damages by an average of 11 percent.

These benefits varied widely by location at the local and state level. In Maryland, wetlands reduced damages by 30 percent. In highly urban areas like New York and New Jersey, they provided hundreds of millions of dollars in flood protection.

Wetland benefits for flood damage reduction during Sandy (redder areas benefited more from having wetlands).
Narayan et al., Nature Scientific Reports 7, 9463 (2017)., CC BY

Wetlands reduced damages in most locations, but not everywhere. In some parts of North Carolina and the Chesapeake Bay, wetlands redirected the surge in ways that protected properties directly behind them, but caused greater flooding to other properties, mainly in front of the marshes. Just as we would not build in front of a seawall or a levee, it is important to be aware of the impacts of building near wetlands.

Wetlands reduce flood losses from storms every year, not just during single catastrophic events. We examined the effects of marshes across 2,000 storms in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey. These marshes reduced flood losses annually by an average of 16 percent, and up to 70 percent in some locations.

Reductions in annual flood losses to properties that have a marsh in front (blue) versus properties that have lost the marshes in front (orange).
Narayan et al., Nature Scientific Reports 7, 9463 (2017)., CC BY

In related research, our team has also shown that coastal ecosystems can be highly cost-effective for risk reduction and adaptation along the U.S. Gulf Coast, particularly as part of a portfolio of green (natural) and gray (engineered) solutions.

Reducing risk through conservation

Our research shows that we can measure the reduction in flood risks that coastal ecosystems provide. This is a central concern for the risk and insurance industry and for coastal managers. We have shown that these risk reduction benefits are significant, and that there is a strong case for conserving and protecting our coastal ecosystems.

The next step is to use these benefits to create incentives for wetland conservation and restoration. Homeowners and municipalities could receive reductions on insurance premiums for managing wetlands. Post-storm spending should include more support for this natural infrastructure. And new financial tools such as resilience bonds, which provide incentives for investing in measures that reduce risk, could support wetland restoration efforts too.

The dense vegetation and shallow waters within wetlands can slow the advance of storm surge and dissipate wave energy.
USACE

Improving long-term resilience

Increasingly, communities are also beginning to consider ways to improve long-term resilience as they assess their recovery options.

There is often a strong desire to return to the status quo after a disaster. More often than not, this means rebuilding seawalls and concrete barriers. But these structures are expensive, will need constant upgrades as as sea levels rise, and can damage coastal ecosystems.

Even after suffering years of damage, Florida’s mangrove wetlands and coral reefs play crucial roles in protecting the state from hurricane surges and waves. And yet, over the last six decades urban development has eliminated half of Florida’s historic mangrove habitat. Losses are still occurring across the state from the Keys to Tampa Bay and Miami.

Protecting and nurturing these natural first lines of defense could help Florida homeowners reduce property damage during future storms. In the past two years our team has worked with the private sector and government agencies to help translate these risk reduction benefits into action for rebuilding natural defenses.

Across the United States, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, coastal communities face a crucial question: Can they rebuild in ways that make them better prepared for the next storm, while also conserving the natural resources that make these locations so valuable? Our work shows that the answer is yes.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on Sept. 25, 2017.The Conversation

Siddharth Narayan, Postdoctoral Fellow, Coastal Flood Risk, University of California, Santa Cruz and Michael Beck, Research professor, University of California, Santa Cruz

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We must strengthen, not weaken, environmental protections during drought – or face irreversible loss



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The Flock Bronzewing is an inland species that is vulnerable to drought. Those vulnerabilities are heightened in an era of climate change and increased risks from feral predators.
Shutterstock

John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; Richard Kingsford, UNSW, and Sarah Legge, Australian National University

Australian rural communities face hardships during extended drought, and it is generally appropriate that governments then provide special support for affected landholders and communities.

However, some politicians and commentators have recently claimed that such circumstances should be addressed by circumventing environmental laws or management – by, for example, reallocating environmental water to grow fodder or opening up conservation reserves for livestock grazing.

But subverting or weakening existing protective conservation management practices and policies will exacerbate the impacts of drought on natural environments and biodiversity.




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Drought-related decline in wildlife

Impacts of severe weather on some natural systems are obvious and well-recognised. For example, during periods of elevated sea temperature, coral bleaching may conspicuously signal extensive environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.

On land, however, the impacts of comparable extreme climatic events on natural systems may be less obvious, even if of comparable magnitude.

Nonetheless, the record is clear: drought leads to extensive and severe declines in many wildlife species.

Early observers in Australia reported the collapse of bird communities (“the bush fell silent”) and other wildlife across vast areas during the Federation Drought.

There were comparable responses during the Millennium Drought.

Unsurprisingly, wetland environments, and species dependent on them, may bear the brunt of impacts. That said, impacts are pervasive across all landscapes exposed to drought.

Drought contributed to the extinction of one of Australia’s most beautiful birds, the Paradise Parrot. For example, the pastoralist and zoologist Charles Barnard noted:

Previous to the terrible drought of 1902 it was not uncommon to see a pair of these birds when out mustering … but since that year not a single specimen has been seen … For three years… there had been no wet season, and very little grass grew, consequently there was little seed; then the worst year came on, in which no grass grew, so that the birds could not find a living, and … perished … they have not found their way back.

Drought contributed to the extinction of one of Australia’s most beautiful birds, the Paradise Parrot.
Wikimedia, CC BY

After the long droughts break, native plant and animal species may take many years to recover, and some never recover or return to their former range.

Threatened plant and animal species – with an already tenuous toe-hold on existence – are often the most affected.

Days of extremely hot temperatures also exceed the thermoregulatory tolerance of some species. That means mass mortality for some animals; and large numbers of even hardy native trees may be killed by heat and lack of rain across extensive areas.

Furthermore, water sources can disappear from much of the landscape. Organisms dependent on floods are now more vulnerable, given that overallocation of water from rivers has increased drying of wetlands.

Drought is not new in Australia, but the stresses are greater now

Of course, drought has long been a recurrent characteristic of Australia. Indeed, many Australian plants and animals are among the most drought-adapted and resilient in the world. But drought impacts on wildlife are now likely to be of unprecedented severity and duration, for several reasons:

  1. with global climate change, droughts will be more severe and frequent. There will be less opportunity for wildlife to recover in the reduced interval between drought periods

  2. feral cats and introduced foxes now occur across most of Australia. In drought periods, these hunt more effectively because drought reduces the ground-layer vegetation that many native prey species rely upon for shelter. Cats and foxes also congregate and hunt more efficiently as wildlife cluster around the few water sources that are left

  3. prior to European settlement, the reduction in vegetation during drought would have been accompanied by natural feedback loops, notably reduction in the density of native herbivores. Now, livestock are often maintained in drought-affected areas, with supplementary food provided, but they also graze on what little native vegetation remains. Now, wildlife must compete with feral goats, camels and rabbits for the last vestiges of vegetation

  4. clearing of native vegetation across much of the eastern rangelands means it will now be much harder for species lost from some areas during drought to recolonise their former haunts after drought. The habitat connectivity has been lost

  5. many wildlife species could previously endure drought by maintaining a residue of their population in small refuge areas, where nutrients or moisture persisted in an otherwise hostile landscape. Now, livestock, feral herbivores and predators also congregate at these areas, making them less effective as native wildlife refuges

  6. in at least woodland and forest habitats, droughts may interact with other factors. Notably, drought increases the likelihood of high intensity and extensive bushfires that can cause long-lasting damage to wildlife and environments.




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Our intention here is not to downplay the needs or plight of rural communities affected by drought.

Rather, we seek to bring attention to the other life struggling in that landscape. Australia should bolster, not diminish, conservation efforts during drought times. If we don’t, we will suffer irretrievable losses to our nature.The Conversation

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; Richard Kingsford, Professor, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UNSW, and Sarah Legge, Associate Professor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why cheetahs in the Maasai Mara need better protection from tourists



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In parts of the Maasai Mara its not uncommon to see more than 30 tourist vehicles at a sighting.
Femke Broekhuis

Femke Broekhuis, University of Oxford

The global cheetah population is continuing to decline with only about 7000 individuals left in Africa. This is thought to be about half the population that existed 40 years ago. The decline has been caused by the loss and fragmentation of their natural habitats, a decline in their prey base, the illegal trade in wildlife as well as conflict with humans for space.

Cheetahs have disappeared from 91% of their historic range. This is hugely problematic as cheetahs are a wide-ranging species. To be viable a cheetah population needs a contiguous, suitable habitat which covers about 4,000–8,000 km2. But few protected areas in Africa are larger than 4,000 km2.

As a result, most of the cheetahs in the world – 77% – are believed to range outside protected areas. But this isn’t ideal for the animals as, from previous research we conducted using data from GPS satellite collars fitted on cheetahs in the Maasai Mara, we found that cheetahs avoid areas of high human disturbance and prefer protected, wildlife areas.

These results show the importance of wildlife areas for cheetahs, but my most recent research shows that these protected spaces have challenges of their own. We found that the number of cubs a cheetah is able to rear is lower in areas that receive lots of tourists compared with areas that are visited less. This suggests that cheetahs aren’t getting the protection they need, particularly from the impact of growing numbers of tourists.

Maasai Mara

Kenya’s Maasai Mara has one of the highest cheetah densities in the world, but it’s a landscape that is under increasing human pressure.

Famous for its spectacular wildebeest migration, the Maasai Mara is a popular tourist destination. The wildlife areas of the Maasai Mara include the Maasai Mara National Reserve, which is managed by the Narok County Government, and numerous wildlife conservancies, each run by different management companies.

The conservancies are formed through a partnership between Maasai landowners and tourism companies, whereby landowners receive a fixed, monthly payment for leasing their land for wildlife based activities on the condition that they do not live on the land, cultivate or develop it. Combined, the wildlife areas, which are predominantly used for photographic tourism, cover an area of about 2,600 km2 – one-tenth the size of Wales or Belgium.

During the high season about 2,700 people visit the Maasai Mara National Reserve daily. But they are often not adequately managed.

The Mara Reserve – with the exception of a conservancy called the Mara Triangle – doesn’t limit the number of tourists that enter the park per day, and there are no restrictions on the number of tourist vehicles at a predator sighting. It’s therefore not uncommon to see more than 30 tourist vehicles at a sighting.

Ideally, the Mara Reserve should restrict the number of tourists, especially during the peak tourist seasons.

Tourists also affect the landscape of wildlife areas. For example, tourist accommodation is continuing to increase in the Mara Reserve and these facilities are usually built on river banks which are prime habitats for species such as elephants, leopards and breeding raptors.

The research

One crucial element for a healthy cheetah population is cub recruitment, defined as offspring survival to independence.

Cheetahs have relatively big litters, ranging between one to six cubs. But cheetah cubs can succumb to various factors including abandonment, poor health, and fires so the number of cubs that reach independence can be very low, ranging from 5% to 28.9%.

I was interested in finding out if tourism is playing a role in this.

By analysing four years of data on female cheetahs with cubs it became apparent that high numbers of tourists are having a negative effect on the number of cubs that reach independence. More specifically, females in areas with a lot of tourists on average raised one cub (or none survive) per litter to independence compared to more than two cubs in low tourist areas.

There was no hard evidence of direct mortality caused by tourists. But my conclusion from my findings is that tourists are likely to have an indirect effect on cub survival. This could be because they lead to cheetahs changing their behaviour and increase their stress levels by getting too close, overcrowding with too many vehicles, staying at sightings for prolonged periods of time and by making excessive noise.

What can be done?

My study highlights the importance of implementing and enforcing strict wildlife viewing guidelines, especially in areas where tourist numbers are high. The Maasai Mara’s wildlife conservancies are largely getting this right. Tourist numbers are limited to the number of beds per conservancy and only five vehicles are allowed at a sighting at any given time.

Actions that could be taken include:

  • allowing no more than five vehicles at a cheetah sighting;

  • ensuring that no tourist vehicles are allowed near a cheetah lair (den);

  • ensuring that vehicles keep a minimum distance of 30m at a cheetah sighting;

  • ensuring that noise levels and general disturbance at sightings are kept to a minimum;

  • ensuring that vehicles do not separate mothers and cubs; and that

  • cheetahs on a kill are not enclosed by vehicles so that they can’t detect approaching danger.

If tourism is controlled and managed properly, it can play a very positive role in conservation. Money from tourism goes towards the creation and maintenance of protected areas – like the wildlife conservancies – and can help alleviate poverty. It also shows local communities the benefits that predators can bring and can positively influence attitudes.

The ConversationHowever if human pressures, like tourism, remain unchecked it risks having a negative impact on wildlife and could mean the loss of some of the biggest attractions – like cheetahs.

Femke Broekhuis, Senior research associate, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Proposed NSW logging laws value timber over environmental protection



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Increased logging in NSW could affect threatened species.
Nativesrule, Author provided

Oisín Sweeney, University of Sydney

New South Wales is revamping its logging laws for the first time in two decades, drafting regulations that will govern more than two million hectares of public native forest.

Among the changes are proposals to permit logging in exclusion zones – part of the reserve system – and dramatic increases to the scale and intensity of logging, putting several threatened species at direct risk.

NSW can implement these changes unilaterally. But if it does, NSW will effectively be asking the federal government to agree to changes that directly contradict the federal Threatened Species Strategy and several species recovery plans, and reduce the extent of the reserve system.




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Regional Forest Agreements

The federal government has arrangements with the states called Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs). They provide certainty to logging operations by accrediting state logging rules under federal environment law. No other industry gets this treatment – but RFAs are now expiring after having been in place for 20 years.

But the proposed changes to NSW logging laws clearly prioritise timber extraction over environmental protection. In 2014 the NSW government extended wood supply agreements with timber companies, locking in a commitment to logging at a certain level. The changes are cited as necessary to meet these wood supply agreements.

This means abandoning commitments made under the National Forest Policy Statement in 1992, including the concept of ecologically sustainable forest management. This is a fundamental shift and, because of the impacts on the reserve system and threatened species, against the national interest.




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Overlogging is behind the changes

In its 2016 Forestry Industry Roadmap the NSW government made a dual commitment to maintain logging levels without eroding environmental protection. However, the NSW Natural Resources Commission tasked with finding a way to do this reported “it is not possible to meet the government’s commitments around both environmental values and wood supply”.

The commission therefore recommended the NSW government “remap and rezone” old-growth forest and rainforest to increase the area that can be logged and make up timber shortfalls.

There are three kinds of zones that make up protected forest reserves. The first zone requires an act of state parliament to revoke, but the second and third can be revoked by the state forestry minister.

To further increase timber supply, headwater stream buffers – areas around waterways that cannot be logged – will be reduced from 10 metres to five.

The new laws also permit the logging of giant trees up to 140cm in diameter, or 160cm in the case of blackbutt and alpine ash (preferred timber species).

Northeast NSW to see the biggest changes

In northeast NSW, a new “intensive harvesting zone” will cover 140,000 hectares of coastal forests between Taree and Grafton. These forests are in the Forests of East Australia global biodiversity hotspot and many are included in a proposed Great Koala National Park.




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This will see 45-hectare patches of forest cleared of all but a smattering of small trees. The intensity of logging everywhere else in the “selective” harvesting zone will, on average, double.

Implications for wildlife and forest ecosystems

The new proposals move towards a retention model where habitat features are to be retained in clumps over several logging cycles. This “retention approach” is good in theory, but is undermined by the landscape-wide intensification of logging – particularly in the intensive zone – and the need to maximise timber production, not the conservation of forest species.

Although hollow-bearing trees are to be retained, no younger trees – which will eventually replace their elders – are required to be protected. This means the inevitable loss of hollow-bearing trees, exacerbated by logging rezoned old-growth. There is no longer any requirement to protect eucalypt nectar trees, vital resources for the critically endangered regent honeyeater and swift parrot.

A report on the proposals from the Threatened Species Expert Panel reveals that almost no data was available to design the new environmental protections, and there was great uncertainty as to whether they will work. One panel member commented:

The intensive harvesting zones are being formally introduced to prop up an unsustainable wood supply arrangement at the expense of the environment.

It is frustrating trying to be part of the solution when the underlying driver of the wood supply agreements fundamentally restricts any chance of a balanced approach.

The federal government has a problem

The federal government has already committed to extending Regional Forest Agreements with the states. Yet besides potentially reducing the size of the reserve network, NSW’s proposals directly threaten federally-listed species.

Conservation advice for the marsupial greater glider clearly states the impact of habitat loss and fragmentation through intensive logging.

Greater gliders (Petauroides volans) are vulnerable to loss of tree hollows and habitat fragmentation, which will both be exacerbated under NSW’s proposals.
Dave Gallan

Koalas prefer large trees and mature forests, yet the intensive logging zone will cover almost half of identified high quality koala habitat. Legally, loggers will only have to keep 10 trees of 20cm diameter per hectare – far too few and too small for koalas.

The national recovery plan for the swift parrot proposes the retention of all trees over 60cm diameter – clearly incompatible with the proposed intensive harvesting zone – while the recovery plan for the regent honeyeater identifies all breeding and foraging habitat as critical to survival.

Recent research has predicted a 31% probability of swift parrot extinction in the next 20 years, and a 57% probability for the regent honeyeater. Both birds are priority species under the Australian government’s Threatened Species Strategy.

Public feedback on the proposed changes is invited until June 29. After that, the federal government must decide whether it deems the proposals to be consistent with national environment law in a new Regional Forest Agreement. Signing off on these changes will cast serious doubt on the federal government’s commitment to the national environmental interest.




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The ConversationThe author would like to acknowledge the contribution of Dailan Pugh, OAM and co-founder of the North East Forest Alliance, to this article.

Oisín Sweeney, Senior Ecologist at the National Parks Association of NSW, Research Fellow, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Passing the brumby bill is a backward step for environmental protection in Australia


Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Tim Doherty, Deakin University

Late on Wednesday night the so-called “brumby bill” was passed without amendment in the New South Wales Parliament. The controversial Coalition bill, supported by the Christian Democrats and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, means that feral horses must be kept in Kosciuszko National Park.

It also creates a community advisory panel, with no scientific experts appointed, to advise the minister on how to manage the horse population in the alpine ecosystem.

The NSW government has attracted accusations of a conflict of interest. Former Nationals member Peter Cochran, who now runs a commercial venture offering brumbie-spotting rides through the National Park (and who has donated extensively to Deputy Premier John Barilaro) reportedly commissioned lawyers to draft the bill. Peter Cochran, John Barilaro and Gladys Berejiklian have denied all accusations of conflict of interest and underhanded conduct.




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The bill has also been criticised by scientific bodies. In a letter to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian this week, the Australian Academy of Science noted that the legislation removes consideration of scientific advice, and called for the bill to be withdrawn or substantially amended.

In a rare move, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has also written to the NSW government, expressing concern over the potential degradation of this internationally significant national park.

Damage caused by feral horses in the Australian alps.
D Thompson and Stuart Rowland, Friends of Currango/Flickr

Out of step with other states

The NSW Labor Party does not support the bill and has pledged to repeal the legislation if elected next March. The legislation represents a radical change in NSW’s management of feral horses, coming after a 2016 draft strategy that recommenced reducing their population by 90% over 20 years.

NSW now stands in contrast to other Australian states. Last Saturday, Victoria launched its Feral Horse Strategic Action Plan. That plan aims to protect native species and ecosystems in national parks by removing or controlling feral horses and is a welcome step in the right direction. Victorian environment minister Lily D’Ambrosio called on the NSW and federal governments to support a unified approach to feral horse management in Australia’s alpine regions.

Is culling in or out?

The Victorian plan excludes aerial culling but will revisit horse control methods if the proposed trapping methods don’t reduce environmental impacts. Aerial culling is widely practised throughout Australia, including Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland (where culling was used to improve road safety), and the Australian Capital Territory, which borders Kosciuszko National Park.

Barilaro argued against aerial culling when he presented the Brumby bill to parliament, calling it cruel and barbaric. He reiterated that the bill is meant to prevent lethal control in his response to Victoria’s announcement. But surprisingly, the draft legislation makes no mention of control methods, lethal or otherwise.




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The deputy premier also referred to the Guy Fawkes National Park horse cull in northern NSW in 2000 to support his argument against aerial culling. But an independent enquiry found that the cull was an appropriate humane response to the situation, where horses were starving to death and causing environmental damage after a fire. The RSPCA and independent reports show that aerial culling is an acceptable and humane way to manage horse numbers.

Further, the brumby bill now locks in the predictable outcome that thousands of horses are likely to starve to death in the next drought or after large fires. It is therefore puzzling that actions likely to increase horse suffering are not of great concern to many within the pro-brumby lobby.

Greater emphasis, instead, has been put on a cultural argument for protecting feral horses: for example, by claiming that feral horses made enormous contributions to Australia’s World War One effort. However, the cultural heritage report prepared for the NSW National Parks Service says “there is no definitive evidence that remount horses were directly taken from the brumby population of what is now Kosciusko National Park”.

The Sydney Olympics opening ceremony was also offered as evidence that brumbies are integral to Australian culture. However, Australian Stock horses, not brumbies, were showcased at the Sydney Olympics – a distinct breed, established by horse enthusiasts in the 1970s.

That said, it is true that horses in the snowy mountains do have local cultural value. But so too does the native fauna and flora threatened by feral horses, many of which only occur in Australia’s high country. This includes species such as the southern corroboree frog, alpine she-oak skink, broad-toothed rat, Raleigh sedge and mauve burr-daisy.

Can we compromise?

Is a compromise possible, in which both cultural and conservation goals can be accommodated? We think so. The feral horse population can be removed from the national parks and sensitive ecosystems. Brumby herds can thrive on extensive private property in the region, an approach already proven in South Australia’s Coffin Bay National Park.

The brumby bill was written and presented to parliament by groups with at best a perceived conflict of interest, and promoted by using inaccurate information about culling and heritage. It has been roundly criticised by leading national and international scientific bodies for not taking adequate account of science and the key role of national parks in conserving biodiversity.




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The ConversationThat this bill has now passed the NSW upper house is a further backward step for conservation goals and Australia’s international reputation for environmental protection, and sets a dangerous precedent by undermining prominent national and state environmental policy. It remains to be seen how this legislation aligns with the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, given that it literally tramples over several matters of national environmental significance.

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Tim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why Australians need a national environment protection agency to safeguard their health


David Shearman, University of Adelaide

Australia needs an independent national agency charged with safeguarding the environment and delivering effective climate policy, according to a new campaign launched today by a coalition of environmental, legal and medical NGOs.

Most Western democracies have established national regulatory action, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency – yet Australia is a notable exception.

Today in Canberra, the Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law (APEEL) will hold a symposium on the reform of environmental laws in Australia. If enacted, these proposals would offer protection to Australia’s declining biodiversity and environment, as well as helping to safeguard Australians’ health.




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The proposal would involve establishing a high-level Commonwealth Environment Commission (CEC) that would be responsible for Commonwealth strategic environmental instruments, in much the same way that the Reserve Bank is in charge of economic levers such as interest rates.

The new CEC would manage a nationally coordinated system of environmental data collection, monitoring, auditing and reporting, the conduct of environmental inquiries of a strategic nature, and the provision of strategic advice to the Commonwealth government on environmental matters, either upon request or at its own initiative. The necessary outcomes would then be delivered by government and ministers via a newly created National Environmental Protection Authority (NEPA).

Tomorrow, this call will be echoed by a major alliance of leading environmental groups, including Doctors for the Environment Australia. Similar to the CEC/NEPA proposal, this group has called for an independent “National Sustainability Commission” that would develop conservation plans, monitor invasive species, and set nationally binding air pollution standards and climate adaptation plans.

The new body would replace the EPBC Act, which has failed to deliver the protections it promised in key areas such as land clearing and species protection, and has no role in limiting climate change which is a major factor in species loss.

The new agencies would be in a position to provide authoritative and understandable consensus reports, similar to those produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change but with a stronger legal basis on which the government should act on its advice.

Why change the system?

The rationale for reform is clear. Only last week the International Energy Agency reported that Earth’s greenhouse emissions have increased yet again. Meanwhile, extreme weather events have increased, while wildlife diversity is on the decline.

Having failed so far to arrest these trends, the governments of countries with high standards of living and high greenhouse emissions should be held particularly accountable. Clearing land and burning forest for firewood are understandable survival strategies for the poor, but unacceptable in rich nations.

Australia’s national laws would be strengthened to address the challenge of climate change and ensure we can mitigate, adapt to and be resilient in the face of a warming world.

Action on climate change, essential to protect biodiversity, is also vital to protect human health as a quarter of world disease has its root causes in environmental change, degradation and pollution.

The World Health Organisation regards climate change as the greatest health threat of the 21st century, a view recognised by the statements of the Australian Medical Association and Doctors for the Environment Australia.

Already, it is responsible for thousands of deaths worldwide, and that figure is projected to rise to 250,000 by 2030. In Australia, air quality reform could prevent an estimated 3,000 air pollution deaths per year.

Causes of current inaction

There are fundamentally two causes of inaction. First, in this increasingly
complex world, governments now more than ever need impartial advice based on the best available evidence. Yet all too often, such advice is politicised, ignored, or both.

Second, in leading democracies – particularly in Australia with its relatively short election cycles – the pressure to focus on re-election prospects dictates that governments emphasise jobs, growth, and living standards. It takes strong leadership to promote the interests of future generations as well as current ones.

It seems counterintuitive to suggest that for its survival, a government might need to delegate decisions for human survival to systems beyond its immediate political control. Yet it already does delegate crucial decisions, such as the monthly interest rate calls made by the Reserve Bank.

A newly created CEC and NEPA would be charged with safeguarding the climate, wildlife, fresh water and clean air. It would be in a position to improve air quality to standards recommended by the World Health Organization, protect water quality, and deliver effective climate change mitigation and adaptation policy uniformly in all states.




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Around the world, environmental laws are under attack in all sorts of ways


The success of such a national system would manifest itself in a growing number of decisions similar to the recent rejection of the expansion of Stage 3 of the Acland coal mine. The judge in that case turned it down on the basis of a range of health and environmental transgressions, yet it is currently more common for states to approve this type of developments rather than reject them.

The ConversationNationally enforceable standards for resource developments are likely to bring effective preventative health benefits, as well as certainty of process. These reforms present an overdue opportunity for Australia to offer leadership and catch up on lost time, to ameliorate the progression of climate change and biodiversity loss, and thus lessen their future impacts.

David Shearman, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.