To list or to sit back and watch it all fade away.
Recently, Adam Kerezsy asked an important question, the question of whether on balance it is a sensible idea to list a threatened species for conservation status? In providing a response, he drew on his experience, particularly with that of saving the Red-finned blue-eye. Adam both researches and acts in conserving that precious species. However, it is just one of Australia’s threatened fishes, and a case where the agent of threat is understood, even if all the specific ecological mechanisms associated with Gambusia holbrooki moving into the Edgbaston Spring Complex are not known inside-out. I would like to join in tackling Dr Kerezsy’s overarching question, by adding some thinking about threatened fishes more generally.
In his article, Dr Kerezsy makes four points directly relevant to his focal question. First, that a listed species is more difficult to work on because of restrictions placed on the researcher or environmental manager as a consequence of the conservation status awarded to that species. The ecology of a threatened species is then more difficult to study as a function of restrictions placed on the researcher, a bureaucratic vortex. In this case, the example of getting permission to conduct dietary analysis on a critically endangered fish was used to signify a potential hurdle.
I get where he is coming from with this, and it seems to me a lot more thought needs to go into developing transparent and rapid ways of weighing up the risks and opportunities of gaining information and protecting a population short and long-term. At a minimum this probably requires the cooperation of the threatened species researchers, local environmental managers and federal department policy makers. The agenda of such a working group should also encompass adaptive management interventions and not just research. Another committee; I can see Adam rolling his eyes as I write this. My point is that there are good reasons for listing a species, even though the system post-listing ain’t perfect.
Second, Adam declared that there is a tendency to nominate newly discovered species, which are rare, and that this is not necessarily good in that it may prevent effective study of these species. This may be partly true, but it ignores the potentially beneficial aspects of listing a species that reach beyond the researcher and into society. Listing certainly does not guarantee protection. However, many listed species face a cocktail of multiple threatening processes, ranging from land clearing, elevated sedimentation of streams, direct harvest of species, chemical pollution, competition with alien species, predation by alien species, spread of diseases and viruses (including those spread by alien species), river regulation, altered habitat structure and so forth. Society will not be changing its way any time soon for a non-listed species while the researcher chips away at her or his private crossword puzzle. My current view is that listing a species acknowledges a need for society to protect.
The public can nominate a species for conservation status in accordance with the EPBC Act. Yet the scientific knowledge to prepare a nomination typically requires the expertise of an ecologist, and with rare species there is rarely more than one or two experts at the coal face familiar with a particular species or population. The more challenging question then becomes for that ecologist, is it ethical not to nominate a species if it is likely in harm’s way? Joanna Public is unlikely to step up. The real kicker is that the ecologist may well wish to remain objective, impartial and without advocacy, and yet often the ecologist is the one in the best position to be aware of a nomination being even relevant. The ecologist may also just not have a conservation bent or see nomination as a priority amidst their other tasks and agendas (e.g. chasing a wage, publishing; see Steve Beatty’s recent perspective). At Edgbaston Springs, human development may not be occurring at a rate of knots. In the Pilbara, and South East Queensland, South Western Australia and in the Wet Tropics, human development is an incoming King Sound tide. Whose responsibility is it to nominate? I contend it is an honour and a privilege.
There is a largely unsettled argument going on behind the scenes with conserving threatened freshwater fishes in Australia. Should we be listing rare species before they get into trouble, or should we only be listing species that are clearly going backwards based on evidence? The pragmatic may side with the latter, yet they might more effectively side with the former. For giggles, recall that a federal listing is going to take a minimum of two years and possibly double that from preparing through to enlisting.
The third point Dr Kerezsy makes is an interesting one. That listing a species does not guarantee it receives adequate scientific or management resourcing. I must confess to having done no analysis to follow this up. I’m guessing if the Red-finned blue-eye was not a listed species it would be that much harder to fund the conservation of the little critter. I have heard Dr Kerezsy present on the plight of this blighter in the order of a dozen times at scientific forums, and each time the conservation status and peril of this species was hit home. An uglier version of the Red-finned blue-eye is the Murray hardyhead, a species that has suffered true pain in recent decades. If it were not listed you wouldn’t bother passing around the hat for fear of raucous laughter. Funded recovery plans for fish, even the better looking counterparts of Murray hardheads are not currently in vogue.
The feds are broke, and at least some of the states are too. Who funds threatened species work? Good question, it’s a pretty, small pool. Who funds ulgy, small-bodied, non-listed species research? Mmmm. If it were the Melbourne Cup, I wouldn’t put my house on getting funding for researching a sexy, sparkling cling goby drawn close to the starter’s rail. Still I’d back it over a Bony herring out in gate 21.
Dr Kerezsy’s final remark tha of interest to me, was: ‘so there’s not much point nominating an obscure species if there is every chance it might end up being a different species by the time the dust settles’. Way to poke a geneticist in the eye. To be sure nominating a species that is not yet recognized or identified clearly is a hard case to sell (believe me I’ve tried). But difficult and messy doesn’t necessarily negate importance. The precautionary principle locks horns with the limited resourcing argument here. And this is a difficult one, and illustrates the complexity and urgency of operating in the threatened species space where new species are being discovered. We need geneticists, taxonomists and fish ecologists, coming together. If any of these three pieces is missing the house of cards collapses. I repeat, ‘we need all three’.
The discovery of a new species in itself is an exciting prospect. However, when the discovery is a species with a highly localized range and one set in a conflicted landscape such as close to urban sprawl or where mining activity is planned or underway, it poses a dilemma. Even if some basic ecological information can be gleaned in a short period of time without adequate resources, and a scurry made for a public nomination for the species, there will be the lag before the species (potentially) has formal conservation status within a state or federal jurisdiction. A fast tracking mechanism is required here, with a built in reassessment process to delist when as Adam puts it, ‘the dust settles’.
I conclude that on balance within the current system it is a sensible idea to list a threatened species for conservation status. Still, we need better resourcing not only financially for researchers, but in terms of connecting agency threatened species people and threatened species researchers, using effective systems. We need state and federal agency staff with knowledge of freshwater fish and aquatic systems.
I’ll end this rant with speculation on where this could go. I think threatened species status is useful especially to focus attention on truly recovering or protecting a freshwater fish. I also think fish are one of the few freshwater taxa that people other than fish ecologists can relate to in some way. In this way listed fish can also serve as surrogates in the protection of freshwater ecosystems. But more and more, I think we need to move toward protecting freshwater ecosystems, and with that comes a special challenge associated with the high degree of connectivity of water, fauna and environmental impacts occurring within catchments.
Beatty, S. (2014). One game at a time, taking nothing for granted, and not thinking about finals: the relevance of clichés to short term research contracts. http://www.themorayslair.org/one-game-time-taking-nothing-granted-thinking-finals-relevance-cliches-short-term-research-contracts/
Kerezsy, A. (2014) To List or not To List? A sensible question. http://www.themorayslair.org/list-list-sensible-question/
Nicholson, E. et al. (2014).”Towards consistency, rigour and compatibility of risk assessments for ecosystems and ecological communities.” Austral Ecology Early View http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/aec.12148/full
Wilson, K.A., Evans, M.C., Di Marco, M., Green, D.C., Boitani, L., Possingham, H.P., Chiozza, F., and Rondinini, C. (2011). Prioritizing conservation investments for mammal species globally. Philos T R Soc B 366, 2670–2680.
Ebb has asked me to handle correspondence as a guest editor. I have known him for several years now, and relish the opportunity to keep him in line (shoe is finally on the other foot). Ebb is pretty passionate when it comes to the underdog, and we all know that if you get him started, you are in for a long session. At least this one is short and sweet.
Both Adam and Ebb have offered their own unique perspectives, but this conversion is one-sided. They both re-iterate that ecologists, geneticists and managers need to be seated at the same table. I’d be interested in receiving both short and long responses to any or all points raised by Adam and Ebb. Alternatively, if you have a different perspective, I’d be very interested to hear from you.
Please send contributions to [email protected].
Allswell – guest editor