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Published: 23 July 2012

Leadership and prompt action could save species

Tara Martin

Failure to act quickly on evidence of rapid population decline led to the first mammal extinction in Australia in the last 50 years, the Christmas Island pipistrelle (Pipistrellus murrayi), in 2009. The fate of another iconic species, the migratory orange-bellied parrot (Neophema chrysogaster), hangs in the balance.

Prompt action to augment an ‘insurance’ population of orange-bellied parrots in 2010 ensured the species still has a chance of evading extinction.
Credit: John Harrison

To understand what led to the bat’s demise so that we can apply this knowledge to safeguarding other species, we analysed the decision process underlying the management of both species. We came up with three recommendations for minimising species extinction worldwide:

  1. informed, empowered, and responsive leadership is essential;

  2. responsible institutions must be held to account; and

  3. decisions must be made while there is an opportunity to act.

The bottom line is that, unless responsive and accountable institutional processes are in place, decisions will be delayed and extinctions will occur.

The Christmas Island pipistrelle

The Christmas Island pipistrelle was a tiny (3.5 g) insect-eating bat endemic to Christmas Island, an Australian external territory 1500 km north-west of Australia in the Indian Ocean.

When first described in 1900, the bat was considered widespread and abundant and subsequent observations suggest it remained common until 1984. From 1994 onwards, monitoring revealed a consistent and rapid decline in population size until its extinction in 2009. Did we manage to monitor a species to extinction?

A Christmas Island Pipistrelle Recovery Plan published in 2004 revealed a complex web of potential threats, with no single factor accounting for the species decline.

Even today, the precise cause of the decline remains unknown but was likely the result of a ‘cascade’ of negative impacts. Chief among them was colonisation of the bat’s habitat by a suite of invasive species, including the giant centipede, common wolf snake, yellow crazy ant and black rat. Disease and habitat loss are other possible factors.

By 2006, it was clear that trying to save the species in the wild was not going to succeed. Researchers and groups such as the Australian Mammal Association and Australasian Bat Association called on the Federal Minister of Environment to commence a captive breeding program. Over the next three years, these pleas continued. Meanwhile, monitoring in 2008 revealed a 99 per cent decline in the population size from 1994.

Finally in July 2009, after further warnings in January of that year that the species would disappear if urgent action was not taken to capture the last few remaining bats and commence a captive breeding program, the Minister gave the green light. Two months later, he announced the rescue attempt had failed.

The orange-bellied parrot

Estimates from the 1800s to early 1910s suggest the migratory orange-bellied parrot was common across its breeding range in Tasmania and its wintering range in southern Victoria and South Australia. By 1917, concerns were being raised over the parrot’s decline and a survey across the species’ entire range in 1981 confirmed it was on the brink of extinction.

The government established a multi-agency, multi-government recovery team in 1983 that included members from universities and non-government organisations. A trial captive breeding population was set up in 1986, increasing to around 170 birds in 1989.

In April 2009, the Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery Team expressed concern about the state of the species in the wild and commenced collating and analysing all available monitoring data. In March 2010, it became evident that, unless drastic action was taken, the species would become extinct in the wild within 3–5 years. The recovery team decided to bolster captive population numbers to create a more robust insurance population for release in the wild once threats had been identified and managed. The team members began implementing the decision, including the capture of two new juvenile founders, within a single day!

Within three weeks, the recovery team had drafted an action plan to form an insurance population, which was endorsed and supported by state and federal environment ministers. The federal government committed further resources to implementation of the plan. Over the 2010-2011 breeding season, researchers captured a further 21 juveniles from the wild to increase genetic diversity within the insurance population.

Lessons for the future

What lessons can we learn from these two case studies? Our analysis of the respective decision-making processes revealed that, in both cases, researchers delivered the information on species decline to decision-makers and promoted recommendations for action.

The differences lay in the way the information was promoted and implemented. The orange-bellied parrot had a champion in the form of an active recovery team to guide species management and ensure recommendations were turned into action. Team members included leading experts on the species and representatives from relevant government agencies and non-government organisations. The team was informed, had a history of credible action and advice, and was willing to respond. Recommendations were based on the best available science, and were implemented quickly and faithfully.

In the case of the Christmas Island pipistrelle, the information conveyed by researchers and members of the Australasian Bat Society, the Australian Mammal Society, the statutory Threatened Species Scientific Committee and others did not lead to a decision until it was too late.

Little bat lost: The Christmas Island pipistrelle silently left the world in 2009 – a last-minute approval for a captive breeding program proved too little, too late.
Credit: Lindy Lumsden

Leadership has emerged as a critical component of endangered species’ protection and recovery. Good leadership can ensure that policies are turned into actions and actions are implemented in a timely and appropriate manner.

From these sobering accounts of species decline, loss and decision making, we offer the following recommendations:

1. Informed, empowered, and responsive governance and leadership is essential. Where legislation provides for the conservation of endangered species, responsibility lies with government. Leadership is the ability to inspire and mobilise others to achieve purposeful change and is a component of governance.

Central to the outcomes for both the Christmas Island pipistrelle and the orange-bellied parrot was the difference in governance and leadership between the two cases. While knowledge about the parlous state of the pipistrelle was available, as were expert recommendations, the individuals involved had no authority to make decisions, nor was there an effective leader to champion the urgent need to act. Thus a decision to act was not taken. Further, the internal decisions that resulted in no action were not visible, and there was no consistent body with expert and public membership involved in guiding decisions.

In the case of the orange-bellied parrot, the authority to make informed management recommendations resided in a single body, the Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery Team. The team was recognised by the States and Commonwealth, and contained the necessary expertise on the parrot’s biology, ecology, threats and management. It took responsibility for collating and analysing information, adaptively determining actions, coordinating activity, and advising the community and governments of the actions that were required.

As the team included representatives from NGOs and the community, any failure to act would have drawn a public response. This collective authority provided governments with confidence to make decisions based on biological evidence and on evidence that there was scientific, jurisdictional and community support. The recovery team model also enabled an ongoing commitment of resources including leveraging urgent investment of additional resources when required. Thus an effective leadership team – in this case, the Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery Team – has been a central ingredient in the species’ persistence.

2. Processes that ensure institutional accountability must be in place. In both cases, monitoring indicated that population declines continued, despite action being taken to abate threats. Eventually, only two options remained: do nothing, or establish captive insurance populations.

Both recovery plans included objectives and actions to monitor and undertake research to better understand the cause of the declines, but only the parrot’s recovery plan contained specific recommendations for action. Recovery plans must specify or include requirements to generate triggers to transform monitoring into action and institutions must be accountable for ensuring these actions are carried out.

Monitoring should be undertaken within an adaptive management framework, whereby explicitly stated actions will be taken when certain events occur.

3. Decisions must be made while there is opportunity to act. Delaying decisions removes opportunities to act and runs the risk that a species may go extinct. The orange-bellied parrot would almost certainly have followed the Christmas Island pipistrelle to extinction if the decision to augment the captive population had not been made and acted upon immediately.

In the case of the pipistrelle, failure to act immediately on the 2006 information about a critical population decline likely contributed to the species’ extinction. Such delayed decision-making has been cited as a key contributor to the failure of other endangered species’ recovery programs.

We are only too aware that insufficient conservation resources exist to manage all endangered species and, without more investment, difficult decisions about how to allocate resources between species must be made. It is conceivable, in the case of the Christmas Island pipistrelle, that the appropriate decision may have been to do nothing because of a perceived low likelihood of success relative to the cost of management and limited resources that could be better allocated elsewhere. However, no such decision process was apparent. In the case of the orange-bellied parrot, extinction was pre-empted in the short term by a timely decision to augment the captive-bred population.

What is clear from this analysis is that stemming the global loss of biodiversity through recovery planning will require brave decision-making in the face of uncertainty. Informed, responsive governance has many faces, from a single empowered agency to a multi-organisation recovery team.

Finally, monitoring must be linked to decisions, institutions must be accountable for these decisions, and decisions to act must be made before critical opportunities, and species, are lost forever.

Dr Tara Martin is a senior scientist with CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems and Adjunct Professor at the University of Queensland and University of British Columbia, Canada. This research was conducted with the support of funding from CSIRO, the Australian Government’s National Environmental Research Program and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions.

This is an edited version of an article published in Decision Point, June 2012, volume 60, pages 6-9.

More information:

Martin TG, S Nally, A Burbidge, S Arnall, ST Garnett, MW Hayward, LFLumsden, P Menkhorst, E McDonald-Madden & HP Possingham (2012). Acting fast helps avoid extinction. Conservation Letters doi:10.1111/j.1755-263X.2012.00239.x

Published: 25 November 2014

Things warm up as the East Australian Current heads south

Jaci Brown

Occasional erratic bursts southward of the East Australian Current (EAC) are thought to have moderated the weather of south-east Australia this autumn and winter and they continue to introduce tropical and sub-tropical marine species to Tasmanian waters.

Tasmania’s east coast: tropical and sub-tropical marine species normally found off NSW are finding their way further south, thanks to changes in the East Australian Current.
Tasmania’s east coast: tropical and sub-tropical marine species normally found off NSW are finding their way further south, thanks to changes in the East Australian Current.

Ocean monitoring by Australia’s Integrated Marine Observing System is providing scientists with significant new insights into the changing structure of the EAC. Over the past 50 years sporadic warm bursts have become more common as the EAC moves further south. With global warming, the warm burst we’ve seen this year may also become the norm.

Had our little friend Nemo the clownfish been riding the EAC this year he might have found himself holidaying in Tasmania rather than admiring the Sydney Opera House. He wouldn’t have been on the trip alone, though. Sea nettles (Chrysaora spp.) have headed from their usual home in Sydney to be found for the first time ever in Tasmania and the Gippsland Lakes.

<i>Chrysaora woodbridge</i>, or sea nettle, was found in surprising numbers in Tasmania this year.
Chrysaora woodbridge, or sea nettle, was found in surprising numbers in Tasmania this year.
Credit: copyright Lisa-ann Gershwin

Waters in the EAC travel southward along the east coast of Australia, with most of it splitting from the coast near Sydney and heading for New Zealand. A small part of the current, known as the EAC Extension, works its way southward past Victoria and Tasmania.

A typical signature in this region are the large eddies, around 200 kilometres across and hundreds of metres deep. Some of the warm water is trapped here along with marine life.

The EAC starts at the Great Barrier Reef and travels south to Sydney before turning eastward to New Zealand. Some of the water can still push southward via a series of strong eddies.
The EAC starts at the Great Barrier Reef and travels south to Sydney before turning eastward to New Zealand. Some of the water can still push southward via a series of strong eddies.
Credit: Eric Oliver

This year a larger proportion of the EAC was sent southward instead of breaking away to the east. Winter ocean temperatures off Bass Strait were around 19°C, an increase of 4°C. This impacted local fishing, beach conditions and the weather.

In the video (above) the animation on the left shows the actual sea surface temperature and speed of the ocean currents. The animation on the right shows the difference in the temperature from average conditions.

Through autumn and winter, you can see two interesting changes occur. A strong warm current heads down the coast from Sydney to the coast of Victoria. At the same time, warm water peels off from the EAC and swirls around in large eddies as it meanders toward Tasmania.

An unusual catch down south

One advantage of warm eddies is the refuge they provide for tuna. They congregate in the centre of the eddy where the waters are warm and dine at the nutrient-rich edges.

Local fishers in north-east Tasmania report a remarkable year that allowed them to fish longer than usual, providing game fishers with more opportunities to catch tuna.

Last summer’s (2013–2014) warmth provided an abundance of skipjack and striped marlin, while winter brought a run of bluefin tuna.

Redmap is a website where locals can report sightings of marine species that are unusual for a given area.

Last summer a manta ray, a tropical cartilaginous fish (in a group including rays and skates), was sighted off the north-eastern coast of Tasmania. Previously the southern-most sighting of a manta ray was just south of Sydney.

<i>Manta birostris</i> spotted off north-east Tasmania on Australia Day 2014.
Manta birostris spotted off north-east Tasmania on Australia Day 2014.
Credit: Redmap/Leo Miller

It’s not just new species visiting Tassie either. Local jellyfish such as the Lion’s Mane (Cyanea) – more commonly known as ‘snotty’ – are usually quite elusive, but turned up in unprecedented numbers last summer in Tasmania.

But there’s a catch

This movement south of the EAC may have an impact on other systems, including our health. We rely on fish such as those from the Tasman Sea as a source of omega-3 fatty acids for our brain health. But the concentration of omega-3 fatty acids in the fish is likely to decrease with global warming.

Algae are the original source of fatty acids. As our waters warm, we will see more of the algae from the tropics take up residence in the south-east.

But the algae from the tropics are much smaller, which means more steps in the food chain from the algae to the fish we eat. The more steps in the food chain, the more the omega-3 fatty acids in the fish are replaced by fatty acids that are less favourable to brain health.

The warmer coastal waters also contributed to the balmy autumn and winter in south-eastern Australia this year. Afternoon sea breezes cool coastal temperatures by drawing cool oceanic air onto the coast.

Sydney’s heat wave in May this year had 19 consecutive days of 22°C or more – this is partly due to the sea breezes failing to bring in the usual cooling air.

What’s causing the EAC to move south?

Over the past 50 years the EAC Extension has stretched about 350 km further south. This extension doesn’t happen smoothly but in erratic bursts.

The southward extent of the EAC is controlled by the collective behaviour of the winds between Australia and South America. Over that same 50-year period these winds changed their pattern due to a strengthening of a climate system known as the Southern Annular Mode.

The changes to this mode have been attributed to a combination of ozone depletion and increasing atmospheric CO2.

One of the most robust and consistent responses of the climate system to increasing CO2 is a further strengthening of the Southern Annular Mode.

So the result will likely be a further enhancement of the EAC extension southward and even warmer waters in the Tasman Sea.

Dr Jaci Brown is a senior research scientist with the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research (CAWCR), a partnership between CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology. Her research focuses on the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and climate change. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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