Hope is not a biodiversity strategy

The public is being encouraged to have its say on a new Biodiversity Strategy - hoped to be more effective than the previous one - and an accompanying policy to provide the "teeth" needed to help threatened species.

It will replace the current Biodiversity Strategy in 2020 and, like its predecessor, be in place for 20 years.

Led by the Department of Conservation (DOC), the strategy helps provide a framework to guide how biodiversity is protected within New Zealand. However, it doesn’t have legal standing on its own.

This has meant the current strategy has at times struggled to turn its high hopes into action. Also lacking in clear accountability or monitoring, the Minister of Conservation’s Terms of Reference for the new strategy describe the current one's lack of clarity as leading to “variable implementation and progress”.

“Everything is just going backwards in biodiversity so all I can say is on the ground it’s not making any difference."

With more than 4000 species threatened or at risk from extinction, New Zealand holds the dubious honour of having the most threatened species of any country in the world.

Freshwater Ecologist Mike Joy has been working on an index of biodiversity in New Zealand. His pie charts and graphs have a depressingly small proportion of bright green, the colour representing species not under threat.

He said he hasn’t seen any benefit from the current strategy.

“Everything is just going backwards in biodiversity so all I can say is, on the ground it’s not making any difference."

Out of New Zealand's 4000 threatened species, only 150 are listed as priority species and often it's not until a species is in dire straits that a concerted effort is made to save them. Kākāpō, down to fewer than 200 birds, are currently having their every mating tracked, and every egg checked to see if it's fertile. The future prospects of the species fit onto an egg chart taped to the the side of a freezer.

By the time a species reaches this sort of crisis point, the genetic diversity of a species can be limited by inbreeding and lead to issues such as those experienced by the Chatham Island Black Robin.

There’s hope that the new strategy, coupled with a new National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity, will make a difference on the ground.

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

How does the Biodiversity Strategy fit into legislation?

Forest & Bird’s lawyer Sally Gepp is familiar with legislation which can be used to protect biodiversity.

The Biodiversity Strategy is part of New Zealand’s commitment to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

She said while the strategy may not be a legally binding document, it is used to influence things which do have legal standing, such as the Resource Management Act.

“The Biodiversity Strategy really our way of saying, okay, internationally this is what everyone agrees and domestically this is how we translate that into the New Zealand context.

Gepp describes National Policy Statements as “legal instruments” of the Resource Management Act.

“They direct regional and district councils on what they need to do in their plans to ensure the goals of their policy are achieved.”

A draft National Policy on Indigenous Biodiversity has been written, and will be progressed in tandem with the Biodiversity Strategy. One of the proposed measures in the policy statement is to force councils to identify significant natural areas on public and private land. These areas would then be subject to controls to prevent any reduction in species that live there.

“The idea being the National Policy Statement is kind of the regulatory arm of implementing the Biodiversity Strategy. Councils must implement it. They must give effect to it. It’s a really powerful document.”

Gepp feels the current one isn’t working as well as it should.

“I think it’s almost been shelved. It has been used in some places in some ways, but it needs to be across society and across governmental strategy that everyone is aiming for, so we’ve got joined up thinking about achieving and outcome.”

She gives housing as an example of where biodiversity could be considered. When redevelopments or new housing areas are set up, biodiversity within the area could be examined.

Councils would be at the coalface of ensuring this occurs, but concerns linger about the consistency of council decisions. In May 2018, a Resource Management Oversight Unit was announced with operational funding of $3.1 million over four years.

Gepp hasn’t heard anything since the initial announcement but thinks compliance, monitoring and enforcement could be improved.

“You see it again and again, where you have these really great aspirational objectives and the policies to implement them, but then the methods are a little bit lacking and then the actual implementation of these methods are lacking even further.

“It’s this hierarchy of increasing disregard as you get down further. I do think improvements are needed and the regulatory oversight proposal may well be a good means of improving that.”

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

What DOC says

Peter Brunt, DOC’s director, policy unit, said this early engagement process is “seeking ambitions and visions for biodiversity and what New Zealand needs to do to achieve these goals”.

“Overall there has been a high level of engagement – New Zealanders value our nature and want to reverse the decline of native species and ecosystems. There are many ideas about the challenges and opportunities for biodiversity management and an appetite do things differently.”

“Biodiversity - all of the species that can’t speak for themselves - need people to say ‘Hey, this is really important and we want to have a New Zealand where species don’t go extinct under our watch.’”

The current submission phase, open until February 28, is part of the early engagement phase of the overall strategy process which will finish October 2020.

As well as website submissions, workshops and hui have already been held in many regions, with more planned. They have been attended by scientists, NGOs, industry, councils and iwi. Input from the workshops and hui, along with the online public submissions, will help set the goals in the draft discussion document in May.

So far, 182 submissions have been made to DOC’s website, meaning 0.004 percent of New Zealand’s population have engaged with the online process.

The page has a series of questions for public input. Some ask the big questions: “What kind of goals or objectives should a strategy aim to achieve? What are your aspirations for biodiversity in New Zealand?”

Other questions are more mundane: “Is the strategy better as a document or a website? Can you help to develop a title/analogy for the New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy?”

Mike Joy thinks the questions are vague and worries consultation doesn’t always deliver the best result for biodiversity.

“It [consultation] gives the industry and all the well-armed organisations scope to put in really complex, good submissions, whereas Joe Public doesn’t have the information, the time, energy or resources or anything like that. They put in what they feel like on the day, so it doesn’t have anywhere as much sway.”

Forest & Bird’s Gepp, however, sees value in public consultation, if it's engaged in widely. A flood of public responses can send a clear message to all government departments. 

"If people can really respond to things like this it shows this is something New Zealanders really care about. We’ve seen the changes that have been achieved when New Zealanders said they cared about plastic in our oceans. The same thing needs to happen," said Gepp.

She's also found working groups to be valuable.

"You see bashing of working groups but it’s critical to involve the people who live this stuff day-to-day in policy-making and decision-making about these types of issues. It’s been so positive for organisations like Forest & Bird to work with organisations like Federated Farmers, the forestry sector, iwi representatives and other environmental groups. To be able to come together and have the time to talk and work these things through, I think creates better policy than if things just come out of government.”

She supports people getting involved in having their say when any opportunities come up.

“Biodiversity - all of the species that can’t speak for themselves - need people to say ‘Hey, this is really important and we want to have a New Zealand where species don’t go extinct under our watch.’”

The deadline for public submissions to the early engagement phase of the process is February 28. Submissions can be made on the Department of Conservation website.

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