Fewer than 40 adult fairy tern remain. Only three eggs hatched this breeding season. Photo: Tergiversation CC BY-SA 4.0

Extinction is forever – that’s the grim reminder from the Ministry for the Environment’s latest report.

Environment Aotearoa 2019, the three-yearly report produced by the Ministry and Stats NZ looks at land, air, climate, and water and their effect on ecosystems.

It is not a lighthearted read. The report tells a tale of invasion, destruction, degradation, and gaping knowledge gaps.

Secretary for the Environment Vicky Robertson describes the report as a health check on the environment and the pressure it is under.

“If we want to protect the things we value, now and for future generations, we need to focus our attention on the choices we can make from here.”

The report comes as the Biodiversity Strategy for 2020 to 2040 is under development as well as a National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity.

Conservation advocates hope the stark facts in today’s report will help inform these documents.

It also comes hard on the heels of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s confirmation yesterday that a water and fertiliser tax is not on the table. The Tax Working Group had suggested environmental taxes could be used to help fund a transition to a more sustainable economy.

It’s the Ministry for the Environment’s second environment report, however, trends can’t be distinguished as some methodology has been updated since the previous report was published in 2015, said principal scientist Dr Chris Daughney.

“We have a better evidence base now than we have before, but it also means we can’t necessarily directly compare some of the findings from this report to some of the findings we’ve published recently.”

The report says New Zealand’s native plants, animals are at risk and two thirds of rare ecosystems are in collapse.

Many of New Zealand’s species are found nowhere else in the world. Almost 4000 are in danger of extinction.

All four species of frogs are threatened or at risk from extinction, along with 90 percent of marine birds, 84 percent of reptiles, 76 percent of freshwater fish and 46 percent of plants.

Archey’s frog – 100 percent of NZ’s frog species are threatened.
Photo: David M. Green CC BY-SA 2.5

Vanishing and ruined habitats

“As of 2012, over half of our land area in New Zealand has an altered land cover. We’ve removed about two thirds of our native forest and we’ve drained about 90 percent of wetlands. Those changes happened over generations, but they are still happening today,” said Daughney.

Pasture is the single largest type of land cover, blanketing around 40 percent of New Zealand’s land area.

The removal trees for grass has exacerbated erosion in some areas causing sedimentation. The sediment clogs fish gills and can smother sea beds.

Farming also adds to degraded waterways, with high levels of nutrients, pathogens and sediment in water near farms. Streams near urban centres fare no better and contain heavy metals.

A reduction in the amount of water in waterways can also affect biodiversity. Irrigated land has doubled between 2002 and 2017, with 60 percent of it being used for dairying.

Changes to the amount of water flowing through a stream can stop freshwater fish migrating to breed, as well as worsen the quality of the water and lead to deadly algal blooms.

 The Mokohinau stag beetle survives in a patch of vegetation the size of a living room. 
Photo: Department of Conservation CC BY-SA 4.0

Under invasion

Despite New Zealand’s isolation, it is considered one of the most invaded countries in the world. Stoats, possums and rats cover over 94 percent of the land. Exotic plants species, some of which are invasive, outnumber native plant species.

Indigenous freshwater fish are also under threat from fish introduced for recreational fishing eating them or their food sources. Rock snot – or didymo – present in 200 waterways in the South Island forms dense mats over streambeds.

In marine environments, more than half of 351 non-native species have established breeding populations.

In certain areas, invasive wasps are increasing in numbers after a warm, dry spring season.

The knowledge gaps

For a small country, there’s a huge amount unknown. Sometimes described as the unloved and underpaid Cinderella of science, it can be a struggle to fund the monitoring of ecosystems.

Last year, the University of Auckland’s Dr Margaret Stanley told Newsroom she often strikes a data black hole in relation to insects.

“Funding agencies don’t see monitoring as sexy or commit for more than five or six years at the very most. You need people out there, year after year, doing the same monitoring.”

What long-term monitoring existed during the days of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) vanished when Crown Research Institutes replaced it. The short-term funding they can access doesn’t allow for 30- to 40-year monitoring projects.

Some areas have never been monitored.

There is no data on the quantity of water being taken from lakes, rivers and groundwater sources.

Only around 150 of more than 3000 lakes have their quality of water monitored. Little is known of the health of the scant number of remaining wetlands.

Even less is known about New Zealand’s marine environment and its inhabitants:

“For marine invertebrates, the number of species assessed for their conservation status (412) may only be 5 percent of the total number of species.”

Another non-marine 3000 species could be in danger of becoming extinct because they haven’t been studied and their prospects are unknown.

This egg chart on the side of a freezer captures the future hopes for kākāpō.
Photo: Andrew Digby DOC

Biodiversity on life support

The extinction risk for 86 species has worsened in the last 15 years. For the 26 species which have an improved outlook, more than half are “conservation dependent”.

This means that without the continued conservation efforts, their outlook could decline further.

For some species the level of intervention needed is extraordinary.

With just 147 adults, Kākāpō are a highly managed species. This breeding season, a bumper one, has been outstanding and some of the success is down to the level of human intervention

Like The Truman Show movie, where a man unknowingly lives in a constructed world and his life broadcast for entertainment, kākāpō movements are tracked through sensors attached to every bird. This year’s breeding season has been publicised with a podcast, news stories and a steady stream of tweets from scientists.

Records are kept of which birds mated, who they mated with and how long they mated for. Eggs have been removed from nests for hatching and replaced with 3D replicas which emit life-like sounds while semen was urgently couriered by drone across the predator-free island for speedy artificial insemination attempts.

It’s been a mammoth effort by Department of Conservation staff and volunteers, helped with funding from Meridian Energy. The 70 chicks born this season represent a huge boost to the species. Despite the level of intervention though, their future population prospects still fit on a chart on the side of a freezer.

The story isn’t as positive for other species receiving conservation help.

A recent article in the Journal of the Royal Society predicts the extinction of the Māui dolphin within 30 years, and a continued serious decline of other species.

What lies ahead?

While it’s hard to find much positive in the report, there is the hope it could galvanise change.

Department of Conservation chief science advisor, Dr Ken Hughey, said the report confirms the precarious state of New Zealand’s biodiversity.

“How seriously are we taking this crisis? Predator Free 2050, freshwater goals and the marine-protected network are responses that will make a difference. We need to build momentum around the positive things we’re doing.”

He said the report provides evidence that central and local government, as well as iwi, communities and business “need to be joined at the hip”.

Data gaps also need addressing. Currently only 20 percent of New Zealand’s species are identified and documented.

Forest & Bird’s land advocate Sue Maturin said although the report is a “pile of woe”, it’s helpful to have the information in one place.

“It makes a great document to help with the formulation of the Biodiversity Strategy. We really need that Biodiversity Strategy to be transformative, and this provides the facts.”

Maturin said the report covered many of the topics Forest & Bird have been aware of such as habitat loss and predation. What she found depressing was the “new threats that are coming over the top of those” such as climate change and disease.

“One of the big increases as the extinction risk worsens for 61 plants species and myrtle rust is responsible for the worsening status of 30 of those species.”

It’s not all bad news, however. There has been an improvement in the number of threatened land bird species. Maturin said this change possibly could be due to the kākāpō recovery programme but could also be a result of the large-scale Battle for our Birds campaign, something she said New Zealand is getting practised at.

More change is needed though to brighten environmental prospects in future reports, said Maturin.

“We need that Biodiversity Strategy and the National Policy Statements to drive really deep change in how land use is managed and regulated and how DOC and conservation is funded.”

Read more:

Data gaps behind the environmental headlines

Soils at risk of perfect storm as forestry and cities grow

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