By complete coincidence, me and Graz unknowingly both wrote drafts about a similar topic. You can read Graz’s piece about the “Natural trout stream paradox” here. This piece touches on similar topics, however its not about trout and takes a far broader brush to the issue (and is way longer- if you want punchy read Graz’s piece).
Conservation strategies, such as conserving biodiversity hot spots and maintaining “pure” ecosystems are failing. Despite our best efforts we are still losing species at a rate of knots. Forests continue to disappear. River ecosystems and fish populations are often at best stable, some continue to decline. We have been successful is setting aside protected areas. Areas of great beauty, of high biodiversity value. Yet we are often still losing the battle. Even in places where those strategies are being somewhat successful, the prospect of climate change, means that those wins may only be short lived. In 50-100 years todays biodiversity hot spots may have moved. So it goes. Don’t get me wrong, protected areas, parks, reserves, still have their place. They are hugely important tools that will always have a place in conservation efforts. Its simply that, alone these areas wont win the war. We will need more than just “islands” of “pure” wilderness if we are going to be successful in conserving species, environments and biodiversity, and thus maintaining important ecosystem services that we all rely on.
At the heart of many of these failures is the idea that the environment is something separate from people, the idea that conservation is about keeping people out so that the “wild” “natural” environments can prosper. These myths and ideologies are captivating, wild places, wildernesses, have an almost spiritual pull to many of us (myself included). However, I can’t help but feel that these romantic notions often mean we fail to see whats really in front of us. That the truth is that “wild” places, places untouched by human hand, simply do not exist. Even places as remote as the Galapagos islands have long histories of human impacts. As tempting as it is for people to see “nature” as something pure, something apart from people (the “save the planet kill yourself“, “aren’t people the worst” crowd), that isn’t the world we find ourselves in. The truth is, that there are no “pure wildernesses” untouched by man.
Our (sometimes) fetishising of these “ideal” places, of nature being something “pure”, “wild”, “pristine”, can potentially set us up to fail. Nature is not apart from humanity, humanity and nature are parts of each other, parts of a whole. Humans are reliant on the ecosystem services that nature provides. We often rely on managing landscapes, rivers and forests for our benefit, for food, wood and other resources (clean water, flood and drought mitigation). By forgetting about the human part of nature, I feel that we can often de-value the environments that sit outside of protected zones. Sometimes defaulting to an idea that only “untouched” “wild” places are worth protecting, worth fighting for. In doing so, we fail to see the value in and fail to manage all the areas that fall outside these wild areas adequately. We fail to see that even our great wilderness areas often rely on direct human management to maintain their relative purity.
Failing to value the ecosystems services these vast areas outside protected zones provide humanity adequately can only be to our detriment and the detriment of species and environments. All to often, because we have failed to value these areas, we plunder them, rather than sustainably managing them for the benefit of the environment and the communities that rely on them.
Humans gaining some benefit from managing ecosystems and environments, giving those places a “value” to the people who use them, investing people in the health of the environments they rely on shouldn’t be something that is seen as apart from conservation. Instead, it should be seen as a vital part of conservation. We can’t hope to lock up all the areas necessary to conserve species and ecosystems. Thus by necessity, we need to consider how to maximise the benefits, both for people and environments, in all the areas that fall outside of those protected areas, farmlands, forestry plantations, rivers, oceans, urban fringes, urban environments themselves. Management of these places for conservation is vital because these places ARE themselves vital for the conservation of biodiveristy, of ecosystems. They may not be pure, but they are important.
Emphasising the value of environments FOR people, not just aesthetically, needs to be a bigger part of how we conserve the biodiversity and ecosystems around us. Management of ecosystems for the benefit of people and environments shouldn’t necessarily be seen as dirty. Instead of viewing these things as separate goals, we should be promoting individuals and communities to invest in nature, to gain some benefit in return for improving it, simultaneously achieving better human and conservation outcomes. The more people that are invested in the health of these environments, the better outcomes we can achieve.
We need to start viewing conservation in a far broader context, in the vast tracts of land and water used and exploited by people and look for ways in which we might be able to manage those lands better, to both help threatened species and ecosystems across a far broader area of the landscape, while simultaneously benefitting the managers, that is, the humans who rely on that land for their livelihoods and recreation.
Which brings me to the management of some of our most threatened fish species. Can this sort of management help ensure their survival? Can giving those fish value to a far wider group of people, e.g. recreational fishers, farmers, communities, be an important tool in “saving” those species? I would argue that it can be. One of the advantages of re-framing conservation this way, is that is can be used to massively grow the support base for conservation efforts. For example, fishers, a group of people who spend time in and utilise these resource are often people that care deeply about these environments and place a huge value on the resources they provide. These are people that can be harnessed to push for better environmental outcomes. People who may not be interested in “classic” conservation, but who will be interested in conserving ecosystems they care about and will be interested increasing the productivity and resilience of those ecosystems because of the benefits this sort of work will do for them. After all, they are one of the groups that will ultimately benefit from those improvements. As I argue here, the antagonism between environmentalists and fishers is one that shouldn’t be so stark. Ultimately, well managed fisheries can simultaneously achieve both the improvement of “recreational” opportunities and improved conservation objectives.
Many fisheries and fish conservation efforts are already managed in this manner. Freshwater (and marine) ecosystems, with their diverse user base and highly connected habitats, which are by their very nature hard to “lock up”, naturally lend themselves to this sort of management. That is, for freshwater and marine conservation to be successful, numerous groups and stakeholders have to be involved and play an active role in conservation programs. Programs such as the Native fish strategy and Demonstration reach programs (a great video demonstrating what they do can be found here) long ago recognised that emphasising community ownership and involvement in conservation strategies is vital to give them the best chance of success. It is these sort of programs, which seek to involve and energise whole communities across broad landscapes and communities which are behind some of our greatest freshwater fish conservation successes. They demonstrate the importance of educating and involving communities, farmers, researchers, conservationists and other stakeholders and of those groups working together across broad areas of the landscape in order to ensure success.
The aim of these strategies, the improvement of native fish stocks within the Murray darling basin, rely on broad-scale changes and widespread community and stakeholder support. In return, they will provide benefits to those diverse user groups, not just the fish. Restoring the degraded river ecosystems (e.g. wetland ecosystems) in the basin is something that will provide broad environmental benefits, as well as significant benefits to stakeholders. These include more resilient ecosystems and improved habitat for birds, reptiles, mammals and fish, as well as improved ecosystem services, helping mitigate floods and droughts, thus helping communities. And of course, recreational fishers will also benefit as more fish equals better fishing. It is this sort of conservation effort that we need to be emphasising and fighting for. As recreational fishers, its these sort of programs that we should be putting our political power behind. I strongly recommend joining the Ozfish unlimited initiative which seeks to involve recreational anglers in environmental works that will directly benefit them.
However, this may not be enough in some cases, for some fish species. Environmental rehabilitation of this sort takes time and in some cases, more drastic short term action may be needed. At least in the short term. Added to this, the spectre of climate change looms large over conservation efforts in many of our freshwater ecosystems (e.g. Kimberly fish species). Taking the ideas discussed above of ecosystems managed to maximise both human value as well as conservation value a step further, in time it may be worth considering more drastic management that aims to facilitate these duel aims. For example, it might be considering both the recreational and conservation benefits of stocking endangered species outside their range. Management such as this is anything but “pure”. However, it may be preferable to losing species entirely.
The conservation value of these sort of interventions has already been demonstrated. More or less by accident. The most secure population of Macquarie perch exists outside its range in the Yarra river, thanks to translocations done for recreational reasons in 1850s. One of the last remaining populations of trout cod in the Seven creek exists outside its range due to anglers moving fish above a natural barrier in the 1920s. Similarly, the Peddar galaxias can thank its survival on translocations of fish into new habitats outside its range after populations crashed in the 1980s. There is no doubt that these populations are now of vital importance for the conservation of these species and that these translocations outside the range of these species have vastly improved their chances of survival into the future. There are also examples of how translocations of native fish outside their range have set up wonderful fisheries in the past, Lake Burrumbeet being a prime example where a vibrant Murray cod fishery was established in the late 1850s (could this fishery be re-established today?).
Given the demonstrated conservation value and potential social value (at least historically) of stockings such as these, maybe we should at least consider consciously repeating similar stockings, both to help preserve these species into the future and to potentially add value to our recreational fisheries? Setting up “safety” populations that can be latter used to restock rehabilitated habitats, that can also potentially act as valuable recreational fisheries in and of themselves in the short term.
This would undoubtedly be controversial and a big step away from classic ideas about conservation. However, given the highly regulated nature of many of our freshwater environments, I believe that at least considering options such as these has value. To improve recreational fisheries we stock trout, an introduced species from the other side of the globe, many many thousands of kms outside their natural range into Australian environments that they have never historically existed in. These stockings provide a social benefit, but add nothing in the way of conservation value. Wouldn’t it potentially be much better, to in some cases stock highly threatened native fish into these environments instead? To achieve a similar social benefit AND a large conservation benefit. These fish are at least Australian and stockings such as these could at least provide duel benefits. Unlike trout stockings, these stockings may only be hundreds of meters from where these fish originally lived (e.g. Seven creek) and at the most, would only be 100s of kms, not thousands from the original range of these species. Hypothetically, establishing populations of trout cod and Macquarie perch in places such as Watts and Upper Yarra reservoirs near Healsville (as purely conservation populations), Sugarloaf reservoir and Thomson reservoir just outside of Melbourne as populations that would provide both social and conservation benefits could prove to be hugely beneficial to the long term prospects of both species while simultaneously improving angling.
Obviously, doing so could only happen after proper environmental risk assessments, taking into account the myriad of risks such a project would entail. Those risks, may mean that ultimately, such a project may not be feasible. However, given the great conservation and recreational benefit stockings such as these have achieved in the past and could potentially achieve in the future this sort of intervention at least deserves consideration. With the potential impacts of climate change, stockings outside the original range of species (this doesn’t just apply to fish either) may eventually become the only hope many species have of survival. Does ensuring the continued existence of a species warrant taking the risks involved and moving away from “purity” into (extreme) active management of threatened species to ensure their continued existence? Wherever you sit on the topic (and to be honest, I have no idea where I stand myself), it is a conversation we need to have before its too late.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have many answers. I do however believe that these conversations about how we approach conservation, how we can best mobilise larger groups and communities to be part of conservation efforts in order to achieve better outcomes, not just in reserves and parks but broadly across the landscape are worth having. That discussing drastic management options that may save species from extinction are worth having.
This piece is designed to hopefully start some of those debates. I would greatly appreciate your feedback, criticisms and ideas. So over to you. Fire away.
Note: I promise I’ll actually go fishing soon and write some good old fashion trip reports or something 🙂