Fresh water ecologist Dr Mike Joy responds to the Prime Minister’s ‘hardtalk’, debunking his bland assertions, and calling his advice “rubbish science”, that would fail a first-year student

Frustration seethes in Mike Joy’s voice, as he addresses Forest & Bird delegates on Saturday, on the matters he “had the little scuffle with the Prime Minister about”. He is passionate, and he is angry: conservation’s answer to the BBC’s science ‘rock star’ Brian Cox? (Cox, though, really is a rock star.)

He rattles off stats, debunking the first of half a dozen myths, faster than a PM — or ours, anyway — might say “clean, green, 100% pure”:

  • 35% of native species are threatened (2,788 species).
  • There are 4,000 data-deficient species, but of those we know about: more than half of bird, fresh water fish, and reptile species are threatened; more than 80% of vascular plants and marine invertebrates; all terrestrial mammals and frogs; a quarter of marine fish species; and one-third of freshwater invertebrates.
  • We are living the most rapid rates of ecosystem change since colonisation. 68% of identified ecosystems are now classed as threatened; the map of rates of change pulses red and crimson, not green.
  • 90% of wetlands gone.
  • More than 70% of indigenous forest cover gone.
  • With twice as many introduced as native plants, and one-third introduced freshwater and bird species, NZ is more like 100% UK in parts, he jokes.
  • Almost all river quality monitoring sites show a worsening trend. 43% of them regularly fail to meet bathing standards, in many instances because faecal contamination levels are too high. Almost half our lakes are polluted by excess nutrients, or over-run by invasive fish. Sediment chokes all but one harbour, and estuaries.
  • By 2050, if the trend continues, we would have extinguished native fish in New Zealand. Five threatened species are commercially harvested; none have any legal protection.
  • 18,000-30,000 people contract waterborne diseases every year, from microbial contamination. Of the 70 “best” Waikato waterways, e-coli in more than 50 of them exceeds contact recreation levels.

Myth two: governments, central and local, are protecting biodiversity. Joy calls the Ministry for the Environment’s fresh water national policy statement “too late” and “toothless” (meanwhile, on biodiversity — as Joy speaks, in fact — Nick Smith is on The Nation, signalling that the draft biodiversity NPS will be further weakened).

Joy charges the Ministry with misreporting the true state of the environment, in their 2007 report (from which chapter 13 mysteriously and controversially disappeared). They measured dissolved oxygen — a proxy for life in rivers — with the conclusion that there was no worsening trend. Joy calls it “rubbish science”; if a first year student presented it, he says, she or he would get an F. The Ministry does not measure some major impacts: deposited sediment, river re-engineering. “These impacts are extensive and significant, but do not form part of any national monitoring programme.”

The Department of Conservation manages commercial whitebait fishing. Four of the five whitebait species are threatened. Only 2% of all our threatened species have recovery plans; in the USA, 85% do. (Incidentally, again, that morning DOC staff cuts lead the Dominion Post. Minister of Conservation Kate Wilkinson assures us these 100+ jobs are ‘back office’, and will not affect service delivery to the ‘front line’.)

DOC and the Ministry of Fisheries between them are “managing to extinction” the threatened long-fin eel. DOC allows its commercial fishing from conservation lands; Joy has dug out official acknowledgement by Fisheries managers that current levels of exploitation are unsustainable, and it is “unlikely that … measures will be sufficient to arrest a predicted substantial decline in recruitment of this species”.

And he takes a swipe at local government, for declining to enforce resource consents, for fear of economic impact.

Next, the Prime Minister’s assurance to Hardtalk’s Stephen Sackur that, “for the most part, I think on comparison with the rest of the world we are 100 percent pure”. According to Joy, “the status of freshwaters is a good gauge of the overall environmental condition of a country because freshwaters unsurprisingly assimilate most of the impacts occurring on land”. He readily accepts the PM’s invitation, to “[look] at our environmental credentials ... [look] at New Zealand”, and draw some conclusions.

On fresh water biodiversity: more than 60% of NZ native fresh water species are threatened. The global average is 37%. We are similar to South Africa (63% threatened), worse than both Europe (42% threatened), and the USA (37% threatened). On a series of lake quality measures (chlorophyll, total nitrogen, total phosphorus), New Zealand rates quite a lot worse than Canada on each measure, better than the United States on all three, worse than Europe on two.

Turning to causes, he challenges the sustainability of intensive dairy farming in New Zealand, and the myth that the Resource Management Act protects the environment.

Nitrogen fertiliser use has risen 700% in a decade; nitrogen levels at 77 fresh water sites are up. Lake pollution levels rise in correlation with more pastoral land — without factoring in land use intensity — and decline where there is a higher proportion of native land cover. And whereas the major impact on rivers is diffuse pollution, the RMA controls point source pollution. “What cows do in the shed [for which discharge consents are issued] is only a tiny proportion of what cows do.”

Following the Hardtalk spat, the PM and Nick Smith trotted out a Yale study, which ranked New Zealand second only to Iceland, in a fresh water quality comparison. That study had no data for Iceland, Joy points out. Only half the 135 countries ranked had any water quality data — the remainder were estimated. He calls it “totally flawed”. Half of the New Zealand sites had been selected precisely because they were pristine controls.

According to Key, scientists were a bit like lawyers, he could find another to give a different opinion. Sure enough, later in the day, Lincoln’s Ken Hughey says he thinks the Yale study was okay: he’s asked a lot of people what they think about our water quality; the overall impression is pretty good and we probably are pretty good. As Joy himself has said, we have some pristine sites.

Without meaning to, he tells us precisely Joy’s problem: the gulf between our self-image, and the trend towards which the stats point, and the bigger picture they cumulatively reveal. It’s not surprising, in fact, at all, that Hughey has time for the Yale study: Joy’s complaint is that Yale didn’t measure, and didn’t measure properly, at least half of it was all about assumptions. It was heavily based upon the very same kind of assumptions that he’s battling, politically and publicly; and that are Hughey’s field.

We have got to wake up, Joy concludes — frustration rising again — this is happening now, at speeds others have suggested point to a global mass extinction event, and yet too gradual and diffuse for most to notice or care. What, he wants to know, is this dairy boom really costing New Zealand? He wraps with a call for an enquiry into the true net value of intensive farming, not just the economic value, and wonders if our golden goose is cooked. “I was going to use a word starting with another letter, but …”.

And, “you might have noticed I’m angry”: angry about what we have lost in such a short time and the lack of any real response from government leaders; angry about people being paid lots of money (“some of them were here this morning”), not doing their jobs. “The response from central government has been denial and misinformation.” The government, instead, is “emaciating DOC”, and “subsidising cows”.

Comments (13)

by Nicola Vallance on June 28, 2011
Nicola Vallance

Good stuff Claire. I thought Mike Joy's presentation was impressive. FAR LESS impressive were the denial tactics seen today on Breakfast TV's interview debate between Dr Mike Joy and Lachlan McKenzie from Federated Farmers, who refused to acknowledge dairying was a problem, and instead blamed it all on trout. totally embarrassing response. Even Fonterra and Dairy NZ are investing a lot of money to front up to the issue.

Regarding the accelerating biodiversity decline and DOC cuts, the Minister is being rather euphemistic by explaining away the cuts as 'back office' jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those in the gun are the regional advisory staff, including scientists, technical support staff, lawyers, planners - the very people with the skills and expertise to protect our wildlife... and while we're cutting DOC jobs, we're increasing mining department jobs... curious and curiouser. My take on the DOC job cuts (which echoes much of the sentiment of this article) can be found here http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/comment/5194393/Cuts-to-DOC-will-be-costly

by Claire Browning on June 28, 2011
Claire Browning

Here is another piece from Mike, in his own words, calling us "delusional", and New Zealand "an environmental / biodiversity catastrophe":

"We have 2788 species listed as threatened with extinction. Worse still is the reality that if more funding were available for further investigation, the species now classified as 'data limited' would likely be listed as threatened and double the number on that list."

 

by Andin on June 28, 2011
Andin

Talk about "rock stars" India knows how to treat a PM.

Empty the Taj Mahal while he's there.

Mike Who...?

johnkey was thunkin'.

This'll look good in the photo album.

 

by william blake on June 28, 2011
william blake

We had a sewer burst a few weeks ago, we came home and the section was pretty smelly so I checked the pipes and manholes. I couldnt find a source but suspected a vent on top of the house. This proved negative, we were puzzled and nauseous.

On the sunday I went down and checked our creek and to my dismay found it running with grey water and stinking. Where a school of kokopu swam was opaque and furry, the pool with dozens of kura was wiped out.

I went for a walk up the creek and found the burst drain and followed it to the house. The house smelled even worse as the occupants had been pouring aftershave about the place to try to counteract the sewer.

We called the experts who sorted out the problem by the end of Sunday evening but it will take our creek 10 years to regenerate if there is no reoccurrence of the problem.

The aftershave seems analogous to the 100% branding to me and rather than admitting to, say, 76% pure and choosing to do something about it we are left with the smell of an overpowering conceit with a bass note of bullshit.

by Tim Watkin on June 28, 2011
Tim Watkin

William, what a sad story. Why hadn't the occupants sorted their broken drain?

Claire, even more depressing stats. Without being flippant, one place to start rebuilding some hectares of wetland would be Christchurch. The red zone mostly tracks the river and I'm told the areas that suffered most from liquefaction were those that used to be swamp. Would be good to create a massive urban wetland at the heart of our second city.

by Claire Browning on June 28, 2011
Claire Browning

It could be beautiful, couldn't it. I don't know what would be endemic, but I'm thinking swans, and geese, and dragonflies ... and happy little wading birds ... and happy little people, toddling round in gumboots.

by william blake on June 28, 2011
william blake

Tim. yes sad and frustrating. We have one of the smallest covenanted sections in Auckland and look after it as well as we can but we can't control what happens upstream. We do have an amazing neighbourhood with people who give up their weekends for tree planting and weed pulling.

I thing the peeps with the burst sewer are tenants and have no investment in the land but I am amazed at the idea of trying to drown out a stink with perfume instead of fixing the problem; or am I just old fashioned?

by DeepRed on June 29, 2011
DeepRed

I fear for Dr Joy. Chances are he's in danger of becoming the next Jim Salinger.

For fuck's sake, when will our movers and shakers realise that Kath and Kim is a sitcom, not a manifesto?

by Claire Browning on June 29, 2011
Claire Browning

I fear for Dr Joy. Chances are he's in danger of becoming the next Jim Salinger.

Yeah, he mentioned Dr Salinger, and the consequent general reluctance, among the New Zealand scientific community, to speak out. Which makes it even more awesome, and also, is another kind of response to John Key: he's only one voice because it takes a brave man to do it.

by Claire Browning on July 06, 2011
Claire Browning

This from Russel Norman at the Federated Farmers' conference sums up the stats on more extensive and intensive dairying, and the science on water quality [PDF]. 

Here, scientists address dairy spokesperson Lachlan Mckenzie's claims that it's all trout's fault.

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