The Dominion Post

A shot of cash can help save our natural capital

- Steve Urlich lecturer in environmen­tal management at Lincoln University

In 2012, Sir David Attenborou­gh, reflecting on 60 years of natural history film-making, said: ‘‘For me, as for countless others, the natural world is the greatest of all treasures. And yet, in my lifetime, we have damaged it more severely than in the whole of human history.’’

Attenborou­gh’s observatio­ns apply wherever human activity is focused on extracting and maximising economic benefit from the natural world.

However, relatively few of these activities are ecological­ly sustainabl­e, and even in our country we have a legacy of ongoing habitat destructio­n.

The natural capital that we deplete today provides fewer choices for future generation­s, as ecosystems become more disturbed, less biodiverse, less resilient, and more vulnerable.

That is why the Government’s announceme­nt of $140 million from the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) for the West Coast transition from coal is farsighted. This is the West Coast’s second ecological package. In 2001, $92m was invested to transition from native-forest harvesting. It highlights the important concept that capital is necessary to help local communitie­s transition to more ecological­ly sustainabl­e industries – substantia­l capital that only a government can provide.

Otherwise, as occurred in the 1980s free-market reforms, small communitie­s bear the heavy economic and social costs of abrupt regulatory change. These communitie­s are heavily dependent on primary industries.

This is the case for pine harvesting, which is pouring millions of tons of topsoil into streams and coastal areas, in places like the East Coast and Marlboroug­h Sounds, which depend on forestry.

But in these areas the land is too unstable, soils too erodible, and the clear-felling and tracking too corrosive to retain topsoil, leading to significan­t impacts in sensitive ecosystems.

In the Marlboroug­h Sounds, community groups and industry are preparing a $50m PGF proposal to create a trust to address legacy and transition issues in an equitable way. With appropriat­e representa­tion, governance, and operating principles, the trust would buy cutting or replanting rights, install coastal setbacks of at least 100m, and retire steep erosion-prone faces.

It would also foster new economic opportunit­ies such as walking and bike trails, ma¯ nuka honey, alternativ­e forestry, ecotourism and nature conservati­on.

The PGF could also play a critical role in solving the largest environmen­tal issue by scale that New Zealand faces outside of climate change.

Every year within our coastal waters alone, over a million kilometres of heavy trawl equipment criss-crosses the sea floor, impacting fragile reef-forming organisms, and stirring up sediment plumes.

The government’s own reporting shows the scale of damage to our seabed ecosystems from 1990 to 2014 is comparable to that of the Brazilian Amazon. The damage over millions of hectares varies in intensity, frequency, and patchiness, just like deforestat­ion, and the actual area can only be estimated from voyage data.

Our scientists have also shown that biodiverse marine habitats that capture carbon, cycle nutrients, stabilise sediments, and provide shelter and feeding areas for marine life, are being hammered.

These ecosystems are the marine equivalent of old-growth forests, the wondrous longlived sponge gardens, horse-mussel beds, and coral-like reefs, which provide complex biodiverse habitats. So what, you might ask? Why shouldn’t I be able to eat affordable terakihi, snapper and monkfish?

This is eerily reminiscen­t of the desire for rimu floors in the days of clear-felling native forests, where old-growth habitat was cut down over thousands of hectares.

Marine biologist Sylvia Earle describes it like this: ‘‘Bottom trawling is a ghastly process that brings untold damage to sea beds that support ocean life. It’s akin to using a bulldozer to catch a butterfly, destroying a whole ecosystem for the sake of a few pounds of protein.’’

New Zealand has an internatio­nal-scale environmen­tal issue, which we have not been ready to acknowledg­e. The PGF offers a timely and appropriat­e capital mechanism to help the fishing industry transition away from bottom-trawling.

So rather than using the influence of political donations to stall the inevitable evolution towards ecological sustainabi­lity, an industry proposal in partnershi­p with local communitie­s to ensure enduring fishing jobs would be more futurefocu­sed.

This collaborat­ive approach is essential if New Zealand is to meet its internatio­nal biodiversi­ty obligation­s, most recently reaffirmed in Egypt by the minister of conservati­on.

In launching the NZ Biodiversi­ty Strategy in 2000, then prime minister Helen Clark said: ‘‘Biodiversi­ty is everyone’s business.’’

The PGF offers a unique opportunit­y to invest in local community wellbeing, and to move to a future that the next David Attenborou­gh might highlight as an exemplar in the coming age of habitat restoratio­n.

Biodiverse marine habitats that capture carbon, cycle nutrients, stabilise sediments, and provide shelter and feeding areas for marine life, are being hammered.

 ??  ?? European Space Agency satellite image of the Marlboroug­h Sounds on July 12 this year, showing a massive sediment plume in Pelorus Sound/Te Hoiere.
European Space Agency satellite image of the Marlboroug­h Sounds on July 12 this year, showing a massive sediment plume in Pelorus Sound/Te Hoiere.

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