When Brockie goes rogue

Bob Brockie has been writing for the Dominion Post for years as the paper’s science columnist and regularly delivers up entertaining comment on the state of science and what is filtering out of the peer-reviewed literature.

He also creates his own cartoons which adds a nice personal touch. Bob is a biologist, one of a small handful of columnists writing for the mainstream media who do in fact have a science background. But Bob’s Dom Post column today goes seriously off track. Have a read yourself… (its not online, but I’ve excerpted it below).

Screen Shot 2012-06-11 at 4.14.04 PM

Bob may well be right in his claim that we have not lost a single native plant or animal species since 1992. There may well have been an overall increase in the number of known and identified species in New Zealand’s territory – an expedition to the Kermadec Islands last year uncovered some fish species that are thought to be novel – and further international examination will determine so.

But this really is a simplistic way of looking at the state of biodiversity in New Zealand. Surely the health of our various species is as important  as the number of them and on that count, there is plenty of evidence to suggest many are under threat and in the case of some, such as Maui’s dolphin, populations are at critically low levels. Bob completely misses the point that overall, the health of our biodiversity is in decline and further pressure on the environment exacerbates this issue. It’s not like it is a disputed trend – countries the world over are struggling with this!

When the WWF released its report looking at how well New Zealand had done in honouring its original Rio pledges, we approached a wide range of scientists to run their ruler over it and see if its conclusions were supported by the science. On the issue of biodiversity, there was little dispute:

Assoc Prof John Craig, School of Environment, University of Auckland:

’New Zealand has a real biodiversity crisis as the Report states and as a country there is a need for serious debate about policies and mechanisms that leads to effective change if there is going to be a more positive WWF Report after the next Earth Summit.’

Assoc. Prof Dianne Brunton, Ecology & Conservation Group, Massey University:

The Department of Conservation (DoC) 2011 annual report from which these findings originate states that ’Most changes result from improved coverage of groups previously not assessed, and improved knowledge and changes in definitions of categories’ the DoC report goes on to state that ’57 species have declined sufficiently to trigger a change to a more severely threatened category, and 7 species have recovered under management sufficiently to move to a less severely threatened category. i.e. 50 worsened.’

Prof David Hamilton, Professor in Lake Restoration at Waikato University:

‘Beyond Rio’ leaves us with no doubt that NZ must urgently rectify its broken promises from the 1992 Earth Summit or else become a case study for some of the highest rates of biodiversity loss on the planet in recent times.

Ironically, Bob’s column is published two pages away from a write-up on the Pure Advantage report “Green Growth for Greater Wealth” which argues, among other things, that our biodiversity is under threat and needs preserving, which use of greener energy sources would go some way to help achieving.

Bob is right in that the Department of Conservation should be commended for the work it has done in bringing back several species from the brink of extinction and sheltering many others from pests and disease. But to suggest that biodiversity in New Zealand is in better health than ever goes against the science. The number of species in an ecosystem gives you no accurate indication of the health of those species and those who work in the field suggest the overall state of biodiversity is deteriorating. Come on Bob, you should know better!


  1. Peter Griffin

    Simon, the “cheer leaders” you write off happen to be scientists who specialize in this area.

    I suggest you check out the following from the Government’s own website… I don’t think they or anyone (except Bob) is seriously arguing that biodiversity in New Zealand is increasing just because the number of discovered species has increased…


    “New Zealand has a unique native biodiversity, but it is in serious decline. Left alone, these bird-dominated islands would have continued to depart from the evolutionary mainstream, but of course, this was not to be. Instead, the arrival of humans had a major impact.

    “New Zealand has experienced two major influxes of humans – first the Maori, then Europeans. Between 750 and 1000 years ago, Polynesian mariners – the ancestors of Maori – arrived and introduced rats (kiore) and dogs (kuri). The second human influx came from Europe, led by Captain James Cook in 1769 (who at the time released rats, pigs and goats).

    “Although New Zealand was one of the last places on earth to be settled by humans, it has one of the worst records of native biodiversity loss. Fire, land clearance, overexploitation of resources, and introduced plants and animals have had a cumulative effect on native biodiversity. As a result dozens of species have become extinct and an increasing number are now threatened with extinction.

    “Extinctions include:

    “32 per cent of endemic land and freshwater birds, including the magnificent Harpogornis moorei, Haast’s eagle
    three of 64 reptile species
    possibly 11 of the 2300 known vascular plants
    “About 800 of New Zealand’s known animal, plant and fungi species and 200 subspecies are considered threatened. It is likely that many still unknown species are also threatened.

    The pressures on biodiversity have taken three forms:

    Hunting – hunting, fishing and gathering.
    Habitat destruction – removing forests, draining wetlands, fragmenting and degrading ecosystems.
    Pests and weeds – introduced organisms that prey on, or compete with, native species, or degrade their habitat.”

  2. Simon Arnold

    Peter, a good scientist checks the sources rather than relies upon the cheer leaders.

    I checked the WWF report and rolled down to the first hard negative facts quoted about Biodiversity (p 21 New Zealand Species Threatened and At Risk). It looks dreadful, an increase from 1000 to 3800 from 1997 to 2008/11. As the report says “As of the 2008/11 Threat Classification List, over 3,800 terrestrial, freshwater and marine species are listed as threatened, a dramatically worsening trend since the 1990s.”

    But then there is the footnote telling us the various sources.
    The 1997 source contains this little gem:

    “WWF accepts that the 1997 assessment of threatened species occurred prior to standard methods of classification and measurement of NZ biodiversity being devised and the resulting figure is drawn from data from the 1980s and opinions at the time and is highly uncertain. Nevertheless the figure of 1,000 species threatened with extinction was accepted at the time
    as shocking and requiring immediate action.”

    As for the increase between 2005 and 2008/11 the DOC 2011 Annual Report is given as the source and the caveats from that buried in the footnotes of the WWF report says:

    “The New Zealand Threat Classification System methodology was revised in 2008. The Department of Conservation notes that in the revised system, ‘threatened’ is roughly equivalent to ‘acutely threatened’ in the previous system, and ‘at risk’ is roughly equivalent to ‘chronically threatened’ in the previous system. Figures in the table from the 2002 and 2005 lists use the previous methodology and the figure provided in each case is for the total number of species listed as ‘threatened’, including ‘acutely threatened’, ‘chronically threatened’ and ‘at risk’ . Figures provided for 2008/11 are the sum of two categories ‘threatened’ and ‘at risk’. In all three cases the figures represent all species evaluated, and not listed as ‘data deficient’, ‘extinct’ or ‘not threatened’.

    “To quote the authors: ‘Most changes between 2005 and 2008/11 result from improved coverage of groups previously not assessed, and improved knowledge and changes in definitions of categories. However, 57 species have declined sufficiently to trigger a change to a more severely threatened category, and 7 species have recovered under management sufficiently to move to a less severely threatened category.’

    “Note 2: The terrestrial and freshwater invertebrate lists 2008/11 have not yet been published and very minor changes in total numbers are therefore possible.”

    Bob Brockie might have a point.

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