An ambitious Biodiversity Strategy document announces a goal not to just halt New Zealand’s biodiversity decline – but reverse it by 2050.

If there’s a year which will be looked back on as New Zealand’s chance to stop the decline of native species it will be 2019.

Right now, the amount of paperwork flying about is probably greater than the 4000 species we risk losing. This year of planning is where the groundwork for how we’ll defend species from extinction will be nutted out.

The groundwork comes in layers of strategy documents, action plans, national policies, and a recently announced overhaul to the Resource Management Act.

Today, a new Biodiversity Strategy discussion document was released. It’s the document which sits at the top of the biodiversity protection food chain and is part of our obligation as signatories of an international agreement on biodiversity.

Due to replace the existing strategy in 2020, it will provide overarching aspirations for the next 20 years which will trickle down into an action plan, national policy statements, and possibly environmental bottom lines touted as an option for the Resource Management Act revamp.

The discussion document includes ambitious goals and notes five “system shifts” which will be needed to “to ignite a groundswell of action and long-term behaviour change”.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage launched the Department of Conservation-led discussion document saying:

“In the 750 years since humans arrived here, more than 50 native bird species have been made extinct, three frogs, at least three lizards, one freshwater fish, four plants and an unknown number of invertebrate species. Today more than 4000 of the native plants and wildlife are threatened or at risk of extinction.

“It is urgent to turn this loss around, including by restoring habitats and removing invasive predators so indigenous nature can survive and thrive.”

The proposed goals announced today are big.

Five years

Within five years the decline in wetlands will be halted. Biodiversity on land will be mapped and protected. Marine ecosystems will be mapped and priorities for protection set. Predators will be eradicated from offshore islands and priority hotspots. The likely impact of climate change will be included in species management plans.

Ten years

By 2030 the hope is for no net loss of important habitat on land, including braided rivers and cloud forests. Marine Protected Areas will be in place. Ten freshwater pests and weeds will be targeted. It’s hoped in 10 years’ time, despite our current standing as one of the world leaders in threatening native species, we’ll be seen as knowing more about how to protect species than other countries.

Thirty years

By 30 years the goal is for a reversal of our current trajectory. By 2050, wetlands will be increasing with land-based habitat such as braided rivers and cloud forests. Stoats, possums and rats will be gone and other established pests reduced to levels which don’t damage environments. Fishing by-catch of some species will be zero. As a result, the goal is by 2050 populations of the 4000 threatened species are increasing.

Scientist Mike Joy’s pie charts showing the conservation status of flora and fauna by percentage.

Out with the old

It’s important to note there’s already a strategy in place.

The current strategy which expires next year has been seen as a failure. In the Government’s own words it has “lost focus and momentum” and contains a lack of clarity which has led to “variable implementation and progress”.

As today’s document points out, despite 20 years of a strategy, biodiversity is still in decline. The question is, if the last strategy is seen as a failure, how is this strategy going to do any better?

The Biodiversity Strategy has no legal standing on its own – it’s aspirational, but toothless. This strategy has proposed a number of “shifts”. The first – and arguably the most important to success – is ensuring there is a system in place to achieve the ambitious goals.

Getting the system right – giving nature a stronger voice

Part of getting the system right is putting teeth in the right place. For over a decade a National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity has languished incomplete. This policy would instruct councils on how to approach biodiversity in their own areas. This gap has at times left biodiversity on private land vulnerable.

Completing this is listed as a priority, as is completing freshwater policy reform.

Another short term priority is reviewing almost everything, fixing it, and then checking the fixes are working. Responsibilities, governance, leadership and statutory roles and responsibilities will be reviewed in the first two years. Recommendations will be implemented and independently audited.

A medium term priority is reviewing natural resource legislation, and ensuring it’s fit for purpose.

In short, the strategy is calling for a complete overhaul of everything related to biodiversity to reverse species loss and bring back the dawn chorus.

The four other shifts are important, but will rely on getting the system right to have effect. They include:

– ensuring Māori perspectives are part of the biodiversity system,

– helping community groups work to achieve nation-wide goals,

– viewing ecosystems as being interconnected, and

– using technology, data and science to fill knowledge gaps.

What’s next?

While this year is a big one for biodiversity planning, it’s also a big year for public input. Submissions to this Biodiversity Strategy document are currently sought, and the draft National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity expected in October will also likely have a public consultation period. 

Today’s discussion document has 16 questions and a series of workshops and hui are planned around the country. The public is also welcome to make submissions until 22 September. One timeline for the strategy suggests a final version could be completed by December. 

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