Fishing nets pose a serious risk to the survival of penguin species, according to a new global review of the toll taken by “bycatch” from commercial fishing. Fourteen of the world’s 18 penguin species have been recorded as fishing bycatch.
The review shows the level of bycatch is of greatest concern for three species: Humboldt and Magellanic penguins, both found in South America, and the endangered New Zealand yellow-eyed penguins.
On New Zealand’s South Island, yellow-eyed penguins are down to fewer than 250 nests. Previous population strongholds have declined by more than 75%. Conservative population models predict local extinction of yellow-eyed penguins by 2060, if not earlier.
Penguins are among the world’s most iconic and loved birds, despite the fact that many people never get to see one in the wild. Indeed, the opportunities to do so are diminishing, with ten of the 18 penguin species threatened with extinction. After albatrosses, penguins are the most threatened group of seabirds. And, like albatrosses, bycatch is thought to be a serious issue for some species.
On land, many penguins are now well protected, thanks to the efforts of conservation researchers, government agencies, community groups and tourism operators. Where many penguins were once vulnerable to attack from introduced predators, or to habitat loss from farming or development, today the biggest worry for many penguin chicks is how to get more food out of their parents.
But below the waves it’s a different story. Over thousands of years, these keen-eyed seabirds have evolved to catch food in the depths, while avoiding natural predators such as seals and sharks. But they cannot see the superfine nylon fishing nets invented in the 1950s which fishers now set in penguin foraging areas.
Little penguins, whose scientific name Eudyptula minor literally means “good little diver”, typically forage in the upper 20 metres of the ocean, with each dive lasting about 90 seconds. The larger yellow-eyed penguin – Megadyptes antipodes, the “big diver of the south” – prefers to hunt on the seafloor some 80-90m down, holding their breath for 2-3 minutes before coming up for air. If they do not encounter a fishing net, that is.
Gillnets (also called set nets) in particular are very dangerous for penguins. These nets are set in a stationary position rather than being dragged through the water. They are designed to catch fish around their gills, but can just as easily snare a penguin around its neck.
If it gets tangled in a net, a penguin will panic and drown in minutes. In Tasmania, nets with more than 50 drowned little penguins have been found washed ashore. Other penguins are found on beaches with characteristic bruising from net entanglement around their necks.
When a penguin is killed at sea, this has knock-on effects back at the nest. The chicks will die of hunger or fledge underweight, with little chance of surviving their first year at sea.
The breeding partner left behind will probably skip a breeding season; some penguins never find another partner after losing their mate. I have seen them calling plaintively from their nest, or even going down to the shore in the evening to look out to sea, before returning to their nest all alone.
In New Zealand, the endangered yellow-eyed penguin is declining. Current population models predict their extinction on the New Zealand mainland by 2060, or potentially even earlier. Yellow-eyed penguins are facing many threats mostly because they are simply living too close to humans.
Whereas threats on land are reasonably well managed, threats at sea need urgent attention. Marine habitat degradation by industries that damage the seafloor will take decades to recover. Similarly, pressures from climate change will not have a quick enough fix to save yellow-eyed penguins from local extinction.
There is one thing, however, we can change immediately: the needless death of penguins in fishing nets. This will give already struggling penguin populations a bit of a breather and maybe even the resilience required to deal with the many threats they face in their daily fight for survival.
Judging by the number of penguins washed ashore with net injuries, many fishers simply discard penguins’ carcasses at sea rather than reporting bycatch or working towards solutions to mitigate it.
Do we really want penguins to drown for our treat of fish and chips? Less destructive fishing methods are available that do not cause penguin bycatch and the death of other protected species.
But these more selective fishing methods would require fishers to change gear, which costs money. Currently, there is very little legal or commercial incentive for fishers to do anything about penguin bycatch.
But there are a couple of things you can do. Please do not just buy any fish with your chips – ask which species it is and how it has been caught. You can use a sustainable seafood guide, such as New Zealand’s Best Fish Guide or Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide. That way you can help the penguins snag a safe fish supper of their own.
Keen students of climate politics might recognise November 30 as the anniversary of the opening of the historic Paris climate summit two years ago. But you might not know that today also marks 30 years since Australian scientists first officially sounded the alarm over climate change, at a conference hailed as the dawn of the ongoing effort to forecast and monitor the future climate of our continent.
November 30, 1987, marked the start of the inaugural GREENHOUSE conference hosted by Monash University and attended by 260 delegates. The five-day meeting was convened as part of a new federal government plan in response to the burgeoning global awareness of the impending danger of global warming.
The conference’s convenor, the then CSIRO senior research scientist Graeme Pearman, had approached some 100 researchers in the months leading up to the conference. He gave them a scenario of likely climate change for Australia for the next 30 to 50 years, developed with his CSIRO colleague Barrie Pittock, and asked them to forecast the implications for agriculture, farming and other sectors.
As a result, the conference gave rise to a book called Greenhouse: Planning for Climate Change, which outlined rainfall changes, sea-level rise and other physical changes that are now, three decades on, all too familiar. As the contents page reveals, it also tackled impacts on society – everything from insurance to water planning, mosquito-borne diseases, and even ski fields.
Internationally, awareness of global warming had already been building for a couple of decades, and intensifying for a couple of years. While the ozone hole was hogging global headlines, a United Nations scientific meeting in Villach, Austria, in 1985 had issued a statement warning of the dangers posed by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Pearman wasn’t at that meeting, but he was familiar with the problem. As he wrote after the 1987 conference, the strength of the Villach statement was “hardly a surprise, as recent evidence had suggested more strongly than ever that climatic change is now probable on timescales of decades”.
The commission’s chair, Phillip Adams, recalls that problems such as nuclear war, genetic modification, artificial intelligence, were all proposed. Finally, though:
…the last bloke to talk was right at the far end of the table. Very quiet gentleman… He said, ‘You’re all wrong – it’s the dial in my laboratory, and the laboratories of my colleagues around the world.’ He said, ‘Every day, we see the needle going up, because of what we call the greenhouse effect.‘
The GREENHOUSE 87 conference was hailed as a great success, creating new scientific networks and momentum. It was what we academics like to call a “field-configuring event”.
The GREENHOUSE conferences have continued ever since. After a sporadic first couple of decades, the meetings have been held biennally around the country since 2005; the latest was in Hobart in 2015, as there wasn’t a 2017 edition.
What happened next?
The Greenhouse Project helped to spark and channel huge public interest in and concern about climate change in the late 1980s. But politicians fumbled their response, producing a weak National Greenhouse Response Strategy in 1992.
The Commission for the Future was privatised, the federal government declined to fund a follow-up to the Greenhouse Project, and a new campaign group called Greenhouse Action Australia could not sustain itself.
Meanwhile, the scientists kept doing what scientists do: observing, measuring, communicating, refining. Pittock produced many more books and articles. Pearman spoke to Paul Keating’s cabinet in 1994 while it briefly pondered the introduction of a carbon tax. He retired in 2004, having been reprimanded and asked to resign, ironically enough for speaking out about climate change.
As I’ve written previously on The Conversation, Australian policymakers have been well served by scientists, but have sadly taken little real notice. And lest all the blame be put onto the Coalition, let’s remember that one chief scientific adviser, Penny Sackett, quit mid-term in 2011, when Labor was in government. She has never said exactly why, but barely met Kevin Rudd and never met his successor Julia Gillard.
Our problem is not the scientists. It’s not the science. It’s the politics. And it’s not (just) the politicians, it’s the ability (or inability) of citizens’ groups to put the policymakers under sustained and irresistible pressure, to create the new institutions we need for the “looming global-scale failures” we face.
A South Australian coda
While researching this article, I stumbled across the following fact. Fourteen years and a day before the Greenhouse 87 conference had begun, Don Jessop, a Liberal senator for South Australia, made this statement in parliament:
It is quite apparent to world scientists that the silent pollutant, carbon dioxide, is increasing in the atmosphere and will cause us great concern in the future. Other pollutants from conventional fuels are proliferating other gases in the atmosphere, not the least of these being the sulphurous gases which will be causing emphysema and other such health problems if we persist with this type of energy source. Of course, I am putting a case for solar energy. Australia is a country that can well look forward to a very prosperous future if it concentrates on solar energy right now.
That was 44 years ago. No one can say we haven’t been warned.
Australian environment groups this week found an unexpected supporter in BHP, the world’s largest mining company.
BHP has defended green groups’ right to receive tax-deductable donations, in the face of a concerted push from both the federal government and the Minerals Council of Australia.
Given the influential role of the environment movement in Australia, and the legal precedent that NGOs and charities can be political, the big Australian evidently sees value in defending them.
Environment groups’ tax status
Environmental organisations in Australia have traditionally been able to claim tax-deductible status under both the Income Tax Act and the Charities Act, in recognition of the fact that the work these groups do has a clear public benefit. But this status has now come under threat.
The federal government issued a report in 2016 entitled Tax Deductible Gift Recipient Reform Opportunities, examining the administration and transparency of the environment groups. The ostensible aim of this report was to ensure that tax-deductible donations to environmental organisations were being used properly.
Among its key recommendations was that environmental organisations would be required to seek tax-deductible status directly from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), and that they be registered as environmental charities in order to qualify. The report also recommended removing the list of environmental groups set out under the Income Tax Act.
Controversially, the report also recommended that the ATO require environmental charities to spend at least 25% of their donation income on “environmental remediation work”, as opposed to campaigning or other activities. The government has subsequently indicated that it is considering increasing this percentage to 50%.
But the Minerals Council of Australia argues that environmental charities should be forced to commit 90% of their resources to on-the-ground environmental remediation, education and research, leaving only 10% for political advocacy.
Support within the LNP
Federal resources minister Matt Canavan has indicated his support for removing tax-deductible status from environmental organisations. In 2015 he stated:
…there are a large minority [of environmental groups] who are clearly engaged primarily in trying to stop fossil fuel development in Australia and I don’t think it’s right that Australian taxpayers, including people who work in the mining industry, be asked to fund those activities.
The Minerals Council of Australia has also backed the removal of tax-deductible status from environmental organisations, claiming that many of these groups are “not environmental organisations but rather professional activist groups whose objective is to disrupt and hamper the resources sector”.
The Minerals Council issued its own report documenting environmental organisations that is claims have committed or encouraged unlawful or unsafe activities or sought tax-deductible donations to support politically partisan activities.
It is also important to note that environmental organisations are not the only groups to receive tax-deductible status. Other groups, such as the Institute for Public Affairs, which often campaigns on behalf of large organisations to remove environmental protections, also has this status.
Environment groups can be political
Legally speaking, there is no doubt that environmental charities and other NGOs do engage in political activities in addition to their focus on public welfare and the environment. This does not prevent them from being treated as charities.
Indeed, in the landmark High Court decision of Aid/Watch in 2011, the court specifically stated that where it is clear that public welfare is a primary motivation, the fact that the organisation also has political purposes is irrelevant.
On this basis, an environmental organisation can engage in activities to promote political change while still maintaining as its principal purpose the conservation or improvement of the natural environment.
Even BHP agrees. In response to the Minerals Council report, BHP announced that it holds a different view. It argued that environmental organisations should not be stripped of their tax-deductible status, because these organisations perform important advocacy roles for policy development in a democratic society.
BHP has agreed to review its membership of the Minerals Council of Australia. It is not alone. In 2016, one of Australia’s largest emitters of greenhouse gas, AGL, left the Minerals Council, citing material differences in their respective policies on climate change and energy.
Environment groups should be allowed to do their work
At a time when we are facing a rapidly transitioning energy landscape – with the acceleration of climate change, renewable energy production, new technologies for unconventional gas extraction, and increasing concerns regarding groundwater depletion and contamination – environmental protection is a major public concern.
It’s hardly surprising that in a democratic framework, environmental organisations have become more politically active. They are striving to ensure that the research and education they conduct with respect to the environment is appropriately reflected within the Australian legal framework.
This work ultimately benefits all Australians. These organistions are constantly seeking to improve and protect the natural habitat in which we all live. In a democracy like ours, the work of these groups should not be drained of funding through changes to the taxation system.
Earlier this month, Australia’s outgoing Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews told ABC radio that land clearing is not the biggest threat to Australia’s wildlife. His claim caused a stir among Australia’s biodiversity scientists and conservation professionals, who have plenty of evidence to the contrary.
The ecologist Jared Diamond has described an “evil quartet” of threatening processes that drive species to extinction: habitat destruction; overhunting (or overexploitation); the presence of introduced species; and chains of linked ecological changes, including co-extinctions.
So the evil quartet has now become an evil sextet. It sounds ugly because it is. But does habitat loss through land clearing still top the list? The answer, in short, is yes.
Land clearing threat
According to an analysis of data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), habitat loss is the number-one threat to biodiversity worldwide. Many more species are affected by processes such as logging and land clearing for agriculture and housing than by invasive species, disease or other threats.
But despite this, habitat loss and land clearing pose an even bigger threat to animals and plants alike. It is the single biggest factor adding to Australia’s list of threatened species list, especially given the recent return to record-breaking land clearing rates.
Of course, the evil sextet do not operate independently; they gang up, often with devastating results. The joint impact of two threats is often larger than the sum of its parts. Habitat destruction is the gang leader that joins forces with other threats to accelerate the slide to extinction.
When habitats are intact, large and in good condition, the species that depend on them are much better equipped to withstand other threats such as bushfires or invasive species. But as habitat is destroyed and chopped into smaller fragments, species’ populations become smaller, more isolated, and more vulnerable to predation or competition.
Larger populations of animals and plants also generally have larger gene pools, making them more able to adapt to new threats before it’s too late. Small populations, on the other hand, are sitting ducks.
You can see where this is heading. It’s all about habitat loss, because habitat loss makes all other threats more acute.
The political landscape
Habitat loss is a polarising political issue, which makes it hard to legislate against. Most habitat is lost through land clearing for agriculture and urban development.
The quality and effectiveness of land clearing policy and legislation in Australia has risen and fallen like the tide over the past four decades. After being the world’s largest land clearing jurisdiction behind Brazil in the post-war era, the Beattie government in Queensland introduced hugely improved land-clearing laws in the mid-1990s.
But under the Newman government, Queensland resumed its world leadership in habitat destruction. While Queensland may be the most extreme example, every Australian state and territory has witnessed similar policy uncertainty over the decades. Meanwhile, no federal environment minister has made significant inroads into the problem since the establishment of the 1999 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
Of course, the outgoing Threatened Species Commissioner is right to acknowledge the impact that feral cats and foxes. But I hope that whoever next takes on the role will be prepared to deliver an unambiguous message about the biggest threat to our plants and animals, and to outline a strong vision for how we can address it.