Monday, September 13, 2010

Biodiversity Soapbox

This week Science magazine had a nice focus on biodiversity in their ecology section. It seems to me that biodiversity was a much hotter topic in the past than it is today. I don't think I've heard many mainstream news stories on it recently. Today its all about the economy and energy consumption. Don't get me wrong, those are very good topics to be concerned about, but as a society that is attempting a green movement I'm not so sure we should be so choosy in what we conserve.

In relation to the topic of conserving biodiversity you are going to hear a few terms that you may or may not know the actual, or scientific, meaning of, so lets take a sec and define a few things. We'll start big and work to small. First, biodiversity (short for biological diversity) is the range of variation found among microorganisms, plants, fungi, and animals. An ecosystem includes a geographic area including the living and nonliving components. A species is a group of populations of organisms that reproduce among themselves (although you can find many other definitions). A community is composed of the populations of different species that interact with each other. A population is a group of individuals belonging to a single species living in a particular area. An organism is an individual living thing. And finally, a gene is a unit of inherited material which as a collection determines the look and behavior of an organism. When you talk about biodiversity you can mean genetic diversity, species diversity, or ecosystem diversity. Or some combination of these.

The biggest threats to biodiversity worldwide include habitat loss and destruction, the introduction of exotic (non-native) species, pollution and contamination, alterations to ecosystem composition, over-exploitation of (a) species, and global climate change. Many people don't like to see animal and plant populations decline or go extinct, but they also don't think such a thing could affect their lives. But in fact, it has been shown to directly affect our basic needs for food, shelter, and health. Think about it. The food can be pretty obvious in that we eat plants and animals, but also consider that things like greater genetic diversity allowing species to adapt to changing environmental conditions and pressures placed upon them by  competitors, predators and diseases. The shelter part includes many material goods such as timber and fibers, but it can also include underpinning functions such as nutrient cycling, flood control, and climate regulation. Then there is health. Many medicines, traditional and synthetic, have a biological source. Not to mention the simplicities of everyday life which contribute to overall mental health, something as simple as taking a walk or going camping.

Let me take a sec to step down from my mini-soapbox...

On the topic of conservation, specifically reducing human impacts on biodiversity, there has been wide political recognition. In 1992 there was a UN Conference on Environment and Development where the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was agreed upon. Since 2002, 193 parties to the CBD committed themselves to substantially reducing biodiversity loss by the year 2010. This commitment was also endorsed by the World Summit on Sustainable Development and later incorporated into the UN Millennium Development goals in 2005. Other organisations around the world are also actively supporting this conservation effort. Organisations such as the Nature Conservancy, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). We're talking millions of members per organisation!

News bulletin: Its 2010. Did you know that it is the International Year of Biodiversity? So how are we doing?

As with most conservation efforts, we are doing a good job but it just isn't enough. The CBD failed to meet its lofty goal and is planning to meet again to adopt a new strategic plan. This plan will include revisions to several of the 21 previous subtargets. The news focus in Science took a look at 6 of these subtargets.

1. Degradation of Habitat - The 2010 goal was to decrease the rate of loss and degradation of natural habitats, but many regions continue to lose habitat. The new goal is to halve or nearly eliminate the rate of loss, degradation, and fragmentation of habitat.
2. Conservation Status of Species - The 2010 goal was to restore, maintain, or reduce the decline of species in selected taxonomic groups. This has worked in some countries but overall, not so much. The new goal is to prevent the decline of known threatened species and improve the conservation status of at least 10% of them.
3. Funding for Conservation - The 2010 goal was to transfer new funding to CBD participants. It kinda worked, but the monetary focus has switched to climate change over the last few years. The new goal is to increase the human resources and financing by 10-fold.
4. Consumption of Biological Resources - The 2010 goal was to reduce biologically unsustainable or consumption. Basically, there was no real progress on this one. So sad. The new goal is to continue to reduce consumption with a specific goal to end overfishing and destructive fishing practices.
5. Protected Areas - The 2010 goal was to effectively conserve at least 10% of each of the world's ecological regions. This one was actually pretty successful, the target being reached for more than half of the terrestrial ecoregions. The new goal is to protect 15-20% of land, with no coastal/marine in the plan as of yet.
6. Invasive Species - The 2010 goal was to establish management plans and control invasive species pathways. Some of this has been met but species are still spreading and many countries still don't have management plans. The new goal will be to prioritize control efforts.

Let's look at it this way: Biodiversity worldwide is still declining even though the conservation efforts are increasing. Why is this? Perhaps it is due to the varying success of different organizations and the practices and policies they employ. Traditional approaches such as the formation of national parks (and other protected areas) and ecological restoration (habitat management, invasive removal, captive breeding, etc) have had some success. Additional success has been seen in those conservation approaches that have economic benefits such as secotourism. Based on your knowledge, are you seeing some gaps in our conservation efforts? Maybe some more funding and conservation effort into the pressures and underlying drivers that cause biodiversity decline and better ecosystem management and restoration techniques?

Here are the references:

Stokstad, Erik. (2010) Despite Progress, Biodiversity Declines. Science: 329 (5997), 1272. (DOI: 10.1126/science.329.5997.1272)

Rands, Michael R. W., et al. (2010) Biodiversity Conservation: Challenges Beyond 2010. Science: 329(5997), 1298 - 1303. (DOI: 10.1126/science.1189138)

In addition to the in-text links, also take a look at:
The CBD's complete revised and updated strategic plan

The UN Millenium Project goals:

A short pamphlet by the Ecological Society of America on biodiversity:

And these related sources:
Pennisi, Elizabeth. (2010) Tending the Global Garden. Science: 329 (5997), 1274. (DOI: 10.1126/science.329.5997.1274)

Normile, Dennis. (2010) Saving Forests to Save Biodiversity. Science: 329 (5997), 1278. (DOI: 10.1126/science.329.5997.1278)

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