Up to now natural resource management has been about sustainable yield. In simple terms ‘sustainable yield’ means that you can harvest a given amount of resource (timber, fish, clean water, etc) from a given ecosystem/area forever. That has been the stated objective of our natural resource management agencies such as forestry and fisheries since the 1950’s. Last year all that changed.
After seven years of negotiation our federal fisheries authority granted, through their minister, a licence for a Dutch supertrawler (FV Abel Tasman aka Margiris) to harvest a given quantity of fish from Australian waters. The quota was based on best available knowledge and then heavily weighted to allow for uncertainty i.e. the catch was set well below what was considered sustainable. The Official view was that the supertrawler could fish for a hundred years and not deplete stocks.
However following a massive community campaign the Environment Minister rolled the Fisheries Minister in Cabinet, changed the Act, and withdrew the licence on the basis of “scientific uncertainty”. The Minister has since explained this action in terms of requiring complete ecosystem management rather than simply counting the fish. This changes the game completely. ‘Ecosystem management’ means ensuring that all parts of the ecosystem and their interactions remain intact, or at least robustly represented in secure reserves.
Ironically the same environment minister had no concern for such matters when allowing open cut mining in the Tarkine. Further, an examination of publicly available maps and management plans shows that the new marine reserves declared by the minister last year give some of the most fragile and important marine habitats (IUCN cat I and II) little protection from highly damaging activities such as demersal trawling. An overlay of marginal electorates provides a very clear explanation as to why.
On the other side of Bass Straight there is relatively little conflict about 'sustainable yield' when it comes to forestry on public land. There is however entrenched disagreement over whether forest management in theory and in practice compromises/damages/changes or otherwise harms various forest ecosystems. On a personal note I spoke recently with a river guide with decades of experience on the Picton river. The Picton flows through now heavily logged forest valleys that the conservation movement sought to preserve. He had a raft of complaints about logging impacts from permanent reduction in water flows that have ended his commercial rafting operations over summer, to loss of mosses on the river bank due to water turbidity.
If we understood completely every organism in a system and all the interactions between them we could then conduct controlled experiments to determine the impact of harvesting. We could then with confidence manage ecosystems sustainably. That will never happen. Ecosystems are just too complex. At Elizabeth Middleton Reef for example there are 1000 identified species of fish. That’s just the fish. Then there is the coral, the sea plants, and all the stuff that crawls around in the mud. If you were to attempt to chart the interdependencies between these elements of the system you would soon run into the multiples of millions of links. The human mind cannot manage this complexity. Supercomputers can manage the data volume but that does not mean we have understanding.
Furthermore much of the world’s biodiversity is microscopic and the microscopic world is still poorly understood. The Craig Venter institute for example, has an ongoing program wherein they sail around the world taking regular water samples and analysing their contents. They have to date identified over 60 million new genes and hundreds of thousands of microbes previously unknown to science (see further http://www.jcvi.org/cms/research/projects/gos). To put that in context, microbes generate about half the oxygen in the air we breathe, drive every biochemical cycle that allows life to happen, and make up about half the world’s biomass but we know almost nothing about them.
OK not all ecosystems are as complex as Elizabeth Middleton reef, but they are complex. Fungi for example are key to decay and hence regeneration in temperate wet forest/rain forest in
but many are not even catalogued. A team of mycologists working a random 100m
transect in the Tarkine discovered entirely new species and found many examples
of very rare species. Can we really do ecosystem management with clearfell and
To make the task even more impossible we don’t have baseline data for most of what we do in natural resource management. In other words we often don’t really have examples of undisturbed ecosystems to compare and we can’t know exactly how things might have changed in the last 100 years or so. There is now a whole science of palaeoecology that attempts to reconstruct what undamaged ecosystems were like. I would not be the first person to say that our failure to fund basic science is a policy of deliberate ignorance by stealth.
How then can we harvest resources without losing species? For many environments we can’t and this makes complete non-sense of the ‘wise use’ argument that market forces can somehow look after the planet and we don’t need preservation or wilderness. What we can do is preserve representative samples of viable ecosystems as a baseline for study and comparison, and then consider ways to extract resources from what’s left. If we really want to avoid extinction, and if we deal in science rather than perception, there will be profound implications for wilderness and natural resource management. I will touch on some of these in the next blog.
Tag line: Margiris, Abel Tasman, Supertrawler, sustainable yield, Tarkine, West Report, Professor West, natural resource management, forest piece deal, forestry, marine reserves.