Mike Joy answers the PM, with hard facts

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”.