Sunday, 15 July 2018

Minding the miniscule: the scale prejudice in everyday life

I was recently weeding a vegetable bed in the garden when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a centipede frantically heading for cover after I had inadvertently disturbed its hiding spot. In my experience, most gardeners are oblivious to the diminutive fauna and flora around them unless they are pests targeted for removal or obliteration. It's only when the likes of a biting or stinging organism - or even just a large and/or hairy yet harmless spider - comes into view do people consciously think about the miniature cornucopia of life around them.

Even then, we consider our needs rather greater than theirs: how many of us stop to consider the effect we are having when we dig up paving slabs and find a bustling ant colony underneath? In his 2004 essay Dolittle and Darwin, Richard Dawkins pondered what contemporary foible or -ism future generations will castigate us for. Something I consider worth looking at in this context is scale-ism, which might be defined as the failure to apply a suitable level of consideration to life outside of 'everyday' measurements.

I've previously discussed neo-microscopic water-based life but larger fauna visible without optical aids is easy to overlook when humans are living in a primarily artificial environment - as over half our species is now doing. Several ideas spring to mind as to why breaking this scale-based prejudice could be important:
  1. Unthinking destruction or pollution of the natural environment doesn't just cause problems for 'poster' species, predominantly cuddly mammals. The invertebrates that live on or around larger life-forms may be critical to these ecosystems or even further afield. Removal of one, seemingly inconsequential, species could allow another to proliferate at potentially great cost to humans (for example, as disease vectors or agricultural pests). Food webs don't begin at the chicken and egg level we are used to from pre-school picture books onwards.
  2. The recognition that size doesn't necessarily equate to importance is critical to the preservation of the environment not just for nature's sake but for the future of humanity. Think of the power of the small water mould Phytophthora agathidicida which is responsible for killing the largest residents of New Zealand's podocarp forests, the ancient coniferous kauri Agathis australis. The conservation organisation Forest and Bird claims that kauri are the lynchpin for seventeen other plant species in these forests: losing them will have a severe domino effect.
  3. Early detection of small-scale pests may help to prevent their spread but this requires vigilance from the wider public, not just specialists; failure to recognise that tiny organisms may be far more than a slight nuisance can be immensely costly. In recent years there have been two cases in New Zealand where the accidental import of unwanted insects had severe if temporary repercussions for the economy. In late 2017 three car carriers were denied entry to Auckland when they were found to contain the brown marmorated stink bug Halyomorpha halys. If they had not been detected, it is thought this insect would have caused NZ$4 billion in crop damage over the next twenty years. Two years earlier, the Queensland fruit fly Bactrocera tryoni was found in central Auckland. As a consequence, NZ$15 million was spent eradicating it, a small price to pay for the NZ$5 billion per annum it would have cost the horticulture industry had it spread.
Clearly, these critters are to be ignored at our peril! Although the previous New Zealand government introduced the Predator Free 2050 programme, conservation organisations are claiming the lack of central funding and detailed planning makes the scheme unrealistic by a large margin (if anything, the official website suggests that local communities should organise volunteer groups and undertake most of the work themselves!) Even so, this scheme is intended to eradicate alien mammal species, presumably on the grounds that despite their importance, pest invertebrates are just too small to keep excluded permanently - the five introduced wasp species springing to mind at this point.

It isn't just smaller scale animals that are important; and how many people have you met who think that the word animal means only a creature with a backbone, not insects and other invertebrates? Minute and inconspicuous plants and fungi also need considering. As curator at Auckland Botanic Gardens Bec Stanley is keen to point out, most of the public appear to have plant blindness. Myrtle rust is a fungus that attacks native plants such as the iconic pōhutukawa or New Zealand Christmas tree, having most probably been carried on the wind to New Zealand from Australia. It isn't just New Zealand's Department of Conservation that is asking the public to watch out for it: the Ministry for Primary Industries also requests notification of its spread across the North Island, due to the potential damage to commercial species such as eucalyptus. This is yet another example of a botanical David versus Goliath situation going on right under our oblivious noses.

Even without the economic impact, paying attention to the smaller elements within our environment is undoubtedly beneficial. Thinking more holistically and less parochially is often a good thing when it comes to science and technology; paradigm shifts are rarely achieved by being comfortable and content with the status quo. Going beyond the daily centimetre-to-metre range that we are used to dealing with allows us to comprehend a bit more of the cosmic perspective that Neil deGrasse Tyson and other science communicators endeavour to promote - surely no bad thing when it comes to lowering boundaries between cultures in a time with increasingly sectarian states of mind?

Understanding anything a little out of the humdrum can be interesting in and of itself. As Brian Cox's BBC documentary series Wonders of Life showed, a slight change of scale can lead to apparent miracles, such as the insects that can walk up glass walls or support hundreds of times their own weight and shrug off equally outsized falls. Who knows, preservation or research into some of our small-scale friends might lead to considerable benefits too, as with the recent discovery of the immensely strong silk produced by Darwin's bark spider Caerostris darwini. Expanding our horizons isn't difficult, it just requires the ability to look down now and then and see what else is going on in the world around us.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

A necessary evil? Is scientific whaling worthwhile - or even valid science?

There are some phrases - 'creation science' and 'military intelligence' spring readily to mind - that are worth rather more attention than a first or second glance. Another example is 'scientific whaling', which I believe deserves wider dissemination in the global public consciousness. I previously mentioned this predominantly Japanese phenomenon back in 2010 and it has subsequently had the habit of occasionally appearing in the news. It likewise has a tendency to aggravate emotions rather than promote rational discourse, making it difficult to discern exactly what is going on and whether it fulfils the first part of the phrase.

I remember being about ten years' old when a classmate's older sister visited our school and gave a talk describing her work for Greenpeace. At the time this organisation was in the midst of the Save the Whale campaign, which from my memory appears to have been at the heart of environmental activism in the 1970s. As such, it gained a high level of international publicity and support, perhaps more so than any previous conservation campaign.

Although this finally led to a ban on whale hunting in 1986, several nations opted out. In addition to a small-scale continuation in some indigenous, traditional, whale-hunting communities, Iceland and Norway continue to hunt various species. As a result, various multi-national corporations have followed public opinion and removed their operations from these nations. Japan, on the other hand - with a much larger economy and population, yet home to a far greater whale-hunting operation - is a very different prospect.

There was an international outcry back in March when Norway announced that it was increasing its annual whaling quota by 28%. It's difficult to understand the motivation behind this rise, bearing in mind that Norway's shrinking whale fleet are already failing to meet government quotas. Thanks to warming oceans, the remaining whale populations are moving closer to the North Pole, depriving the Norwegians of an easy catch. What is caught is used for human consumption as well as for pet and livestock food, as it is in Iceland, where the same tourists who go on whale-watching trips are then encouraged to tuck in to cetacean steaks and whale burgers (along with the likes of puffin and other local delicacies).

Although we think of pre-1980s whaling as a voracious industry there have been periods of temporary bans dating back to at least the 1870s, admittedly driven by profit-led concern of declining stocks rather than animal welfare and environmentalism in general. It wasn't just the meat that was economically significant; it's easy to forget that before modern plastics were invented, baleen served a multitude of purposes while the bones and oil of cetaceans were also important materials.

But hasn't modern technology superseded the need for whale-based products? Thanks to a scientific research exemption, Japanese vessels in Antarctica and the North Pacific can work to catch quotas set by the Japanese government, independent of the International Whaling Commission. The relevant legislation also gives the Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research permission to sell whale meat for human consumption, even if it was obtained within the otherwise commercially off-limits Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. That's some loophole! So what research is being undertaken?

The various Japanese whaling programmes of the past thirty years have been conducted principally in the name of population management for Bryde's, Fin, Minke and Sei whales. The role of these four species within their local ecosystem and the mapping of levels of toxic pollutants are among the research objectives. The overarching aim is simple: to evaluate if the stocks are robust enough to allow the resumption of large-scale yet sustainable commercial whaling. In other words, Japan is killing a smaller number of whales to assess when they can start killing a greater number of whales!

Following examination of the Japanese whaling programmes, including the current JARPA II study, environmental groups including the World Wildlife Fund as well as the Australian Government have declared Japan's scientific whaling as not fit for purpose. The programmes have led to a very limited number of published research papers, especially when compared to the data released by other nations using non-lethal methods of assessment.

There is now an extremely wide range of non-fatal data collection techniques, such as biopsy sampling and GPS tagging. Small drones nicknamed 'snotbots' are being used to obtain samples from blowhole emissions, while even good old-fashioned sighting surveys that rely on identification of individuals from diagnostics such as tail flukes can be used for population statistics. Japanese scientists have continually stated that they would stop whale hunting if other techniques proved as effective, yet the quality and quantity of research they have published since the 1980s completely negates this.

After examining the results, even some Japanese researchers have admitted that killing whales has not proven to be an accurate way to gain data. Indeed, sessions in 2014 at the United Nations' International Court of Justice confirmed that if anything, the Japanese whale quotas are far too small to provide definitive evidence for their objectives. To put it another way, Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research would have to kill far more whales to confirm if the populations are healthy enough to bear the brunt of pre-1980's scale commercial whaling! Anyone for a large dollop of irony?

Looking at the wider picture, does Japan really need increased volumes of cetacean flesh anyway? After the Second World War, food shortages led to whale meat becoming a primary protein source. Today, Japanese consumption has dropped to just one percent of what it was in the decade post-war. The domestic stockpile is no doubt becoming a burden, since whale meat is now even used in subsidised school lunches, despite the danger of heavy metal poisoning.

Due to the reduction in market size, Japan's scientific whaling programmes are no longer economically viable. So how is it that the long-term aim is to increase catch to fully commercial levels - and who do they think will be eating it? Most countries abide by the International Whaling Commission legislation, so presumably it will be for the domestic market. Although approximately half the nation's population support whale hunting, possibly due its traditional roots (or as a reaction to perceived Western cultural imperialism?) most no longer eat whale meat. So why are the Japanese steadfast in pursuing research that generates poor science, is unprofitable, internationally divisive, and generates an unwanted surplus?

The answer is: no-one really knows, at least outside of the Institute of Cetacean Research; and they're not saying. If ever there was a case of running on automatic pilot, this seems to be it. The name of science is being misused in order to continue with the needless exploitation of marine resources in the Pacific and Southern oceans. Thousands of whales have been unnecessarily slaughtered (I realise that's an emotive word, but it's worth using under the circumstances) at a time when non-lethal techniques are proving their superior research value. Other countries are under pressure to preserve fish stocks and reduce by-catch - by comparison Japan's attitude appears anachronistic in the extreme. By allowing the loophole of scientific whaling, the International Whaling Commission has compromised both science and cetaceans for something of about as much value as fox hunting.