Australia needs a wake-up call

Nicki Shumway, Martine Maron and James Watson recently published a letter in Science on the health of the Great Barrier Reef:

The Great Barrier Reef was recently considered for a World Heritage ‘in danger’ listing, but was spared in 2015 by the development of the Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan. This plan includes targets to improve water quality and biodiversity in the Reef, which is considered in poor overall condition. A key criticism of the 2050 Plan by scientists was the lack of discussion and concrete action on the impacts of climate change to the Reef.  In addition, a key requirement by the World Heritage Committee was that the Plan be fully implemented and adequately funded, with a progress report submitted to the Committee by Dec. 1, 2016.

Unfortunately, the health and resilience of Great Barrier Reef has continued to deteriorate. Last year the largest bleaching event on record caused massive loss of coral cover, and again this year we are in the midst of another bleaching event – unprecedented for the Great Barrier Reef.

 The Reef is in poor condition, with current policy doing little to abate this decline. We wrote an article, published this month in Science about the inconsistent policies of the Queensland and Commonwealth governments, who on the one hand state their commitment to the integrity of the reef, and on the other, approve large coal mines in the same region. We suggest that an ‘in danger’ listing by UNESCO will be the wake-up call needed to prioritise this natural wonder over industrial development in the region.

 Read more here: Australia needs a wake-up call

News, Students

Recovering the far eastern curlew

PhD candidate Micha Jackson’s work was recently featured on the NESP TSR website, as well as this ABC News story and radio interview.

Micha has also published a literature review on the value of artificial roosting habitat for migratory birds, that can be downloaded here

The far eastern curlew, one of the world’s largest migratory shorebirds, has declined dramatically in the last 20 years. According to Micha Jackson the bird is in trouble on multiple fronts and central to addressing these challenges is a better understanding of its habitat needs and international cooperation.

The migration route of the far eastern curlew falls within the ‘East Asian-Australasian Flyway’ (EAAF), which it shares with more than 50 other migratory shorebird species. Combined there are more than 8 million shorebirds that pass through more than 20 countries every year.

The northern end of the EAAF (where migratory shorebird species breed) includes parts of Russia, China, Mongolia and Alaska, and its southern end (non-breeding habitat) includes parts of south-east Asia, Australia and New Zealand. In the middle lies much of east and south-east Asia, and some islands of the western Pacific.

As with all migratory species, if any one critical area in the life cycle is left unprotected, it could spell the collapse of the entire population despite the best efforts elsewhere. All countries along the migration route will need to enact conservation measures to achieve recovery of the far eastern curlew, and these actions will also benefit many other species.

Far Eastern Curlew. Image: Micha Jackson

Tracking studies over the last 30 years have taught us much about the far eastern curlew’s life-cycle. These studies include the resighting, recording and reporting of bands and flags attached to the legs of curlews as they move through the flyway, and the use of geo-locators and satellite transmitters.

It breeds in marshy areas of Russia and northern China, and, as far as we can tell the entire population passes through the Yellow Sea/Bohai Sea region, which includes coastal areas of China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea, during migration. This region is therefore a critical stopover area for curlews to rest and refuel while undertaking their gruelling long-distance migration flights.

During the non-breeding season, about three quarters of the birds wait out the northern winter in Australia, with others heading to the Philippines, Indonesia, PNG and likely elsewhere.

Under a dark cloud

The far eastern curlew has suffered rapid and dramatic population declines in recent decades. The IUCN Red List, which assesses the global status of species, listed it as Least Concern in 2004, but it was rapidly upgraded to Vulnerable in 2010 and to Endangered in 2015. Recent research confirmed an annual decline of almost 6% over the last two decades, and the species was listed as Critically Endangered in Australia in 2016.

A key driver of this decline is extensive loss of intertidal mudflat, particularly in the Yellow/Bohai Sea region – where more than half of this habitat has disappeared over the last 50 years. Causes of mudflat loss are multiple and include: coastal developments, which ‘reclaim’ soft, food-filled mudflats using seawalls and convert them into solid land; a reduction in sediment deposits from rivers that have been extensively dammed; and escalating sea-level rise.

The bill of this knee-height bird can be up to 20 cm in females, and is used to probe soft mud for food like crabs and marine worms. Image: Dean Ingwersen

Other impacts on the species include reduced food supply on remaining mudflats, loss of and changes to breeding habitat, hunting, accidental catch in fishing nets, and pollution.

Within Australia, recreational beach goers and dogs are also having a major impact on curlews, disturbing them on ‘roosting’ habitat – important areas where they rest during high tide periods when mudflat feeding grounds are covered with seawater. This shy bird will generally flee from people and dogs when they are more than a hundred metres away and does not readily resettle when disturbed. Coastal developments are also impacting roosting habitat.

Research for strategic planning

A new Darwin-based TSR project is addressing key knowledge gaps facing far eastern curlew conservation. In particular, how the birds use different feeding and roosting habitats and which areas are most critical to conserve, particularly in the face of increasing coastal development.

Shorebirds will use some artificial habitats, including some wharves, commercial salt works and aquaculture ponds. This project is working with the Darwin Port, where significant numbers of far eastern curlew use the East Arm Wharf as a roosting area.

Filling knowledge gaps about feeding and roosting requirements will enable the project to develop conservation guidelines for developers, planners and regulators. Our hope is that improved management of ‘accidental’ habitats like East Arm Wharf, alongside conservation of intertidal mudflat habitat, could help the far eastern curlew and other migratory shorebirds recover.

This project also complements a NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub project, which takes a whole-of-north approach to conserving migratory species groups reliant on the marine environment.

An international focus

The new TSR Hub project commenced just as key stakeholders from EAAF countries met in Singapore at the 9th EAAF Partnership ‘Meeting of Partners’. This biennial meeting is the decision-making forum of the Partnership, which commenced in 2006 and is a voluntary, non-legally-binding agreement allowing countries, local governments, NGOs, IGOs, and corporations from throughout the flyway to work together on shorebird conservation initiatives.

The 9th Meeting of Partners of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership met in Singapore in January 2017. Image: Eugene Cheah

In response to the dire situation facing the far eastern curlew, a special task force was established at the 2015 Meeting of Partners and at the 2017 meeting, a Single Species Action Plan was endorsed and launched, to guide priority conservation and research actions to help the species recover throughout the flyway.

Given the current status of far eastern curlew and its recent dramatic declines, the survival of all individuals remaining in the population is crucial. Australia’s role is to design and implement effective conservation measures at home to protect non-breeding habitat from disturbance and loss of roosting habitat, and to work cooperatively with other flyway countries.

Get the full version of this article in Science for Saving Species Magazine.


New research to help preserve the benefits people receive from nature

Humans rely on things that come from nature – including clean air, water, food, and timber.  But how can we tell if these natural services that people rely on, are at risk of being lost, potentially permanently?

That is the focus of a new paper by an international team, led by Dr Martine Maron from The University of Queensland’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

“There are many things that happen in nature that provide benefits to people, and we call these ecosystem services,” Dr Maron said.

European honeybee and Australian native stingless bee. Credit: Dr Tobias Smith, UQ

“As well as natural goods, like seafood, crops, and timber, they can also include other things like the well-being benefits of spending time in a park or at the beach, protection from flooding and even regulation of the climate.

“Many of these things are essential to people, but until now, there hasn’t been a consistent way to look at whether different ecosystem services are under threat from growing human demand or unsustainable levels of use.

“We have developed a framework to identify services that at risk of being undersupplied or even of being lost entirely.  This allows time to either move towards more sustainable use, or to start planning for alternatives when we lose the ecosystem service.

“At its core, the framework is a method to analyse supply and demand, and the different things that affect them, like the condition of natural systems and whether demand by people is expected to change over time.

“For example, a fishery might have been able to supply demand until now, but as the local population grows, the whole ecosystem service can become under threat when demand exceeds supply.”

Dr Matthew Mitchell, a study co-author based at the University of British Columbia, said: “An example we often see in our cities is the loss of vegetation and its ability to intercept rainwater and reduce flooding.

Lac Hertel, Mont Saint Hilaire, Quebec. Credit: Matthew Mitchell, University of British Columbia

“People continue to develop flood-prone areas while also clearing vegetation and building on upstream slopes, so floods are becoming more common and damaging.”

Dr Maron said the new framework could provide a basis for global, national and regional assessments of threat to ecosystem services, and accompany existing assessments of threat to species and ecosystems.

“As the need to prioritise investment in safeguarding ecosystem services becomes more urgent, a framework for assessing when and where ecosystem services are imperilled is timely,” she said.

The study, published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, is supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery project grant.

It involves researchers from UQ; University of British Columbia, Canada; University College, London; University of New South Wales; NSW Office of Environment and Heritage; and the Wildlife Conservation Society, U.S.A.


New literature on biodiversity offsets from our lab in 2016

More was published about biodiversity offsetting in 2016 than ever before, mirroring the increasing influence of this controversial approach to conservation. Here, we highlight some of the key outputs from our research group working on conservation policy with our collaborators from around the world. Most of these are available freely online but if you’d like a copy email me:

Taming a Wicked Problem: Resolving Controversies in Biodiversity Offsetting

Maron, M., C. D. Ives, H. Kujala, J. W. Bull, F. J. F. Maseyk, S. Bekessy, A. Gordon, J. E. M. Watson, P. E. Lentini, P. Gibbons, H. P. Possingham, R. J. Hobbs, D. A. Keith, B. A. Wintle, and M. C. Evans. 2016. BioScience Biw038

In this review, we sought to summarise the full breadth of challenges faced by biodiversity offsetting – in other words, we asked: why are offsets so polarising? Are they good, bad, or better than nothing? We aimed to provide an accessible overview of the issues being so furiously debated in the world of offsets, including the technical, governance, social and even ethical arguments. Thanks to Joe Bull we were able to include a valuable graphical snapshot of where in the world offsets were happening, and under what guises. We hope this is a valuable go-to paper for those seeking an overview of the messy world of offsetting and a starting point for chasing down key research.

Seeking convergence on the key concepts in ‘no net loss’ policy

Bull, J. W., A. Gordon, J. E. Watson, and M. Maron. 2016.  Journal of Applied Ecology 53:1686-1693.

Offsets, mitigation, compensation…. are all these words interchangeable? And what does ‘no net loss’ actually mean, anyway? Keeping definitions tight and consistent is not just about pedantry; it ensure we are all talking about the same thing, which is pretty important if designing a policy to protect the environment, communicating with the public about the net impacts of a development, or asking developers to spend considerable resources on achieving ‘no net loss’. In this paper, we highlighted a short list of terms that are commonly used in the world of offsets and no net loss, and examine the divergent concepts they have come to be used for. In each case, we suggest a solution to the growing confusion, with reasoning behind each call we have made. My next challenge: to make sure I use the terms consistently myself…

Protecting India’s conservation offsets

Narain, D., and M. Maron. 2016. Science 353:758-758.

Led by Divya Narain, this short article outlines a major risk to the effectiveness of offsets for forest loss in India: lack of additionality. A valid offset must support conservation that would not otherwise happen – you can’t count conservation already planned or under way. But in 2016, the Indian parliament passed laws allowing for funds intended for offsets for forest clearing (compensatory afforestation) to be redirected to a separate afforestation program which forms part of the country’s National Action Plan on Climate Change. In effect, this double counting will mean 1.2 million hectares of deforestation will remain uncompensated for.

A disaggregated biodiversity offset accounting model to improve estimation of ecological equivalency and no net loss

Maseyk, F. J. F., L. P. Barea, R. T. T. Stephens, H. P. Possingham, G. Dutson, and M. Maron. 2016.  Biological Conservation 204, Part B:322-332.

A couple of years ago, Fleur Maseyk led the development of a (voluntary) offset accounting approach for use in New Zealand. One of the important features of that approach was the way in which the different elements of biodiversity that were the focus of the offsets could be disaggregated, ensuring no net loss outcomes for each element. This paper describes this disaggregated model and its development, and notes that despite being designed to estimate biodiversity offset requirements within the largely voluntary New Zealand context, the approach is equally useful for making transparent the set of assumptions behind any offset calculation.

Biodiversity offsetting in dynamic landscapes: Influence of regulatory context and counterfactual assumptions on achievement of no net loss

Sonter, L., N. Tomsett, D. Wu, and M. Maron. 2016. Biological Conservation.

Offset benefits usually take decades to accrue, and data about individual offset trades are often hard to come by, so ex-ante evaluation of offset policies is one of the main ways we can actually work out whether they are likely to achieve no net loss. In work led by Laura Sonter and Nicole Tomsett, we evaluated the current offset approach being used in Queensland, Australia, with a focus on an endangered habitat type (Brigalow woodland). Offsets for the loss of habitat in Queensland are topical, not least because of vast proposed coal mines (such as Adani’s Carmichael mine). We showed how sensitive offset outcomes were to the rates of deforestation that are considered to be ‘business as usual’ – a major issue when Queensland’s land clearing laws and rates change dramatically from government to government. Even so, in none of the scenarios that we examined did the current policy achieve a no net loss outcome for either vegetation extent or bird habitat quality.

Reef Trust Offsets Calculator: A prototype calculation approach for determining financial liability
for marine biodiversity offsets voluntarily delivered through the Australian Government Department of the Environment (Reef Trust)

Martine Maron, Melissa Walsh, Nicole Shumway and Jon Brodie. 2016. Final Report for project 3.12 of the NESP Tropical Water Quality Hub.

Controversial as it may be, development continues to impact on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage Area. Because of the nature of the marine and coastal environment, offsets delivered directly by proponents can be particularly challenging. We advised the Australian Government on the development of a tool that could assist potential approval holders and relevant agencies in determining appropriate financial payments as offsets under the Reef Trust. It extended the methodology currently used to calculate terrestrial offsets (which our group led the development of in 2012) to the marine setting. Melissa Walsh is now leading the second phase of this project to develop a working calculator.


Queensland land clearing is undermining Australia’s environmental progress

Increases in land clearing rates were confirmed in a report released by the Queensland Government late last year. The latest SLATS report, which documents change in woody vegetation in Queensland between 2012-14, shows that the increased rates of clearing are evident across the board: in old-growth vegetation, mature regrowth of threatened ecosystems, and catchments that drain to the Great Barrier Reef – not just young regrowth vegetation. While these land clearing rates increase, they undermine Australia’s environmental programs. Read our recent article in The Conversation here.


Bushfires pushing species to extinction

Climate change is increasing the frequency, severity and extent of bushfires across southern Australia (and in many other parts of the world). Along with Tim Doherty and Rob Davis, Emma Burgess (who has recently graduated form our lab with her PhD) and Martine Maron recently coauthored a story for The Conversation illustrating some of the most recent impacts of bushfires and how the increasing severity is interacting with landscape change to threaten plant and animal species. The paper complements a recent paper by Maron on how increasing climate variability will increase resource bottlenecks for a large range of species globally – see the abstract here and contact if you’d like a reprint.


Postdoctoral position available: better biodiversity offsets for threatened species

We are looking for an outstanding early-career researcher to join our lab as a postdoctoral research fellow. The successful applicant will work collaboratively with a team of people across several universities and organisations in the National Environmental Science Program’s Threatened Species Recovery Hub on the project, “Better offsets for threatened species“.

Offsetting is a relatively new and still-controversial conservation tool. Significant challenges to offset effectiveness for threatened species remain. For example, the vast majority of offsets to date have involved land protection and traditional restoration, which can be expensive, and often have limited and uncertain benefits, which are slow to accrue. This project will identify a suite of Australian threatened species and habitats that most commonly trigger a requirement for offsets, but for which traditional ‘land-based’ offsets are not cost-effective, or for which uncertainty is high. For this suite of species, we will evaluate approaches focussed more directly on threat abatement, including several threat abatement interventions that will be trialled on-ground through linked TSR Hub projects. We will also explore how best to design delivery approaches for such novel offsets, particularly when they require contributions from multiple proponents and investment in threat abatement over the long term.

Click here for all the details on how to apply for this or one of several other postdocs that are now available through The University of Queensland as part of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub. If your interest is in the area of biodiversity offsets, and you have specific questions about the role, you can also contact me by email directly after getting in touch with the central contact person (Hub COO Melanie King). Applications close: 25 Sep 2015 (11:55 PM) E. Australia Standard Time


Martine Maron on ABC Melbourne 774

Noisy miners in the news: should we consider culling this overabundant native for conservation? See ABC news story here:

and listen to an interview with Martine Maron on ABC Melbourne 774 here: