Dr Mike Joy spoke, by Green Party invitation, to a crowded Mapua Community Centre (standing room only). His main area of expertise is in river health – or in our case river sickness. It was quite eye-opening to learn that clean green New Zealand has some of the most chemically polluted and pathogen contaminated rivers in the developed world. Hear him speak to Radio NZ on the topic here.
“There are almost two worlds in New Zealand,” said Mike Joy, a senior lecturer in environmental science at Massey University in Palmerston North. “There is the picture-postcard world, and then there is the reality.”
The clean and green image has long been promoted by the isolated country in its striving to compete in world markets. But an international study in the journal PLoS One measuring countries’ loss of native vegetation, native habitat, number of endangered species and water quality showed that per capita, New Zealand was 18th worst out of 189 nations when it came to preserving its natural surroundings.
This was in something of a contrast to the 100% pure NZ campaign that the National Government of the day was rolling out. Frank Macskasy points out some of the hypocrisy around that campaign and also highlights the joys resulting from critiquing Government (intentional pun).
Joy is not unaccustomed to criticism of his approach of letting the science speak even if it doesn’t agree with big business interests.
The Environmental Protection Authority CEO’s complaint to Massey University about the freshwater ecologist sparked a disciplinary process, yet the agency seems strangely disinclined to speak out on climate change denial, writes Shaun Hendy.
As a member of the Science and technical advisory group, Dr Joy is a party to the review of the National Policy Statement on Fresh Water. The Government is moving toward reducing intensity in agriculture and horticulture to protect the environment and achieve our goals of healthy rivers. This is in contrast to Dr Nick Smith’s National Policy Statement that just moved the bar of what we call healthy to label our polluted rivers clean and green.
The previous Government’s action described in the report by Professor Sir Peter Gluckman (the inaugural Chief Science Advisor to the New Zealand Prime Minister) as:
In the proposed amendments to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2014 (NPS-FM), contained in the 2017 Clean Water package, there is a move to require councils to identify where the quality of lakes and rivers will be improved so they are suitable for swimming more often, and an associated target to make 90% of rivers swimmable by 2040. To enable
“Nuanced” being the term used to explain a grading system that has labelled our rivers healthy when on the scale of the developed world’s worst polluters we rank in the top 20. In fact, when we first assessed the threat status of our native freshwater fish in the early 1990s we discovered that 22% were either threatened or at risk. Fast forward to 2018 and now 74% have been forced to the brink of extinction. Noting that 92% of our 50 genetically distinct native fish species are found nowhere else in the world so once they are gone they are gone.
Not a bad achievement for one generation. But as Dr Joy explains it is worse than that:
This makes us by far the worst of the developed nations for fish species health. As bad as that is in itself, the central truth of ecology is that things never exist in isolation. He
What that tells us in 2018 is that New Zealand’s freshwater systems are in awful shape and getting worse fast. Our grandchildren won’t be swimming in our rivers, and there won’t be native fish in them
That is just our above ground aquatic life, Gluckman also points out that “even our groundwater resources contain life –over 100 invertebrate species live in aquifers, and are believed to play an important cleansing role for the water in those aquifers.”
Fortunately, our Government has the matter in hand. We have a Freshwater Fisheries Act that protects our fish. Well, it protects one fish species – the grayling. If you haven’t heard of the grayling it could be because it was extinct for five decades before it made the list. On that basis, 74% of the rest of our native fish should soon qualify to make the list.
The same law does protect introduced fish such as trout and salmon. Which Dr Joy likens to protecting goats and deer instead of kiwi and kereru. Our other fish are only protected if we do not eat them which looks like:
“Freshwater crayfish: threatened. We eat them. Freshwater mussels: threatened. We eat them. We harvest five species for fun and profit under the name “whitebait” – the īnanga, the kōaro, the banded kōkopu, the giant kōkopu and the short jaw kōkopu. Of these, only the banded kōkopu is not threatened.”
Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA), is a group set up by the regional councils of NZ to monitor our nation’s waterways. It has since expanded to include the Cawthron Institute, Ministry for the Environment and Massey University with support from the private Tindall Foundation.
However, some believe that they are asleep at the wheel such as
Backed up by Dr Mike Joy who said LAWA was arguably irresponsibly moving into dangerous territory.
“Because the worst thing for freshwaters in New Zealand is a false impression that net improvements are being made before the necessary changes are actually made,” he explained.
Sir Peter Gluckman, who is more politically correct, does not lambast our past river health monitoring efforts as much as some, however, his report does contain some statements that send strong messages.
Some water bodies are in a good state but others have been significantly compromised by agricultural intensification, urban expansion and industrial pollution, hydroelectric development, or the effects of drought. Our wetlands have been greatly reduced and many river catchments are significantly affected by dam systems.
For both rivers and lakes, nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) concentrations, and the levels of microbial
The fundamental ecosystem health issue is whether these nutrients trigger excessive phytoplankton growth, which varies considerably between catchments but is clearly related to human activities on land.
The science is clear -New Zealand’s fresh waters are under stress because of what we do in
Despite an enormous effort there is a lack of systematic monitoring of river and lake fish, wetland ecology and water quality, and groundwater macro-fauna, and no overall nationally integrated water quality monitoring programme that deals with the need for representativeness and other design criteria. Thus there is a risk of bias in reporting, and the gaps place some limits on the conclusions that can be drawn about freshwater state and trends.
Considerable work is now being directed by research agencies, academics, industry organizations and regional and central government to address the freshwater issues facing New Zealand. In addition, there is increased stakeholder and community participation in freshwater planning, limit setting and in restoration activities. There is no universal set of solutions –in many
New ways of utilizing our land for economic gain that also have lower environmental footprints need to be found and adopted if we are to meet the vision New Zealanders have for their fresh waters. In turn this may create a further set of societal discussions that will continue to challenge us as a nation
Dr Mike Joy explained to the crowd at Mapua how land use intensification has only been profitable because the environment has been subsidising the activities. If we were to include the uncounted for cost to the environment all the extra production would be at best zero gain but in real terms we are going backwards.
We are selling our “clean green” brand down the toilet for a short-term gain.
About Dr Mike Joy. [Bio ex Wikipedia]
He was a Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Environmental Science at Massey University in Palmerston North until May 2018. He is currently employed at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University of Wellington
In 2009, Joy received the Ecology in Action award from the New Zealand Ecological Society. In 2011, he was awarded Forest & Bird’s Old Blue award for his research into freshwater ecology and his work bringing freshwater conservation issues to public attention.
Joy received the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Charles Flemming award for Environmental Achievement in 2013, for his contribution to the sustainable management and protection of New Zealand’s freshwater ecosystems.
Dr Mike Joy was presented with the inaugural Critic and Conscience of Society $50,000 Award Sept 2017 for his work in drawing attention to the issue of water quality in New Zealand’s rivers, lakes and drinking water.
He has authored a book, Polluted Inheritance on freshwater and the impacts of irrigation and intensive farming.