Consumption and extraction of natural resources

2016

Harvesting of species

The impact of harvesting is considered a potential threat to 30 per cent of listed threatened species across a wide range of taxa. The collecting of terrestrial plant species is considered a threat to 14 listed cycad species, 13 fern species and 176 other plant species, including 29 critically endangered orchids. In Tasmania, harvesting of terrestrial plant species or products, such as seeds, wildflowers and tree ferns, is regulated under state-based management plans; export is approved under the EPBC Act. The Department of Parks and Wildlife in Western Australia manages wildflower and seed harvesting in accordance with a management plan that is approved under the EPBC Act. Seed collection of forest species is also important in other states and territories, for use in native forest regeneration, plantation establishment, propagation of nursery stock and landcare plantings. Collection is regulated and reported by relevant public authorities. Illegal harvesting of some species of terrestrial plants is a concern—for example, for tree ferns and orchids.

Indirect harvesting (including activities such as timber logging) is identified as a significant pressure for many Australian species, including listed threatened species. For example, 4 threatened mammals and 3 near threatened mammals have timber harvesting identified as a pressure in The action plan for Australian mammals 2012 (Woinarski et al. 2014). Similarly, current commercial logging practices in Victoria’s wet forests are considered one of the major pressures on the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri), leading to concerns about its population viability in the wild (Lindenmayer et al. 2015). Timber harvesting is also identified as a significant pressure for a small number of hollow-nesting species, particularly those that require large hollows in which to breed, such as the masked owl in Tasmania (Tyto novaehollandiae) and the barking owl in southern Australia (Ninox connivens).

Harvesting of native birds continues under both traditional and nontraditional activities in northern Australia. Harvesting of emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae), Australian bustard (Ardeotis australis) and magpie goose (Anseranas semipalmata), among others, occurs in northern Australia. One of the largest harvests of native birds occurs in Tasmania where short-tailed shearwaters (Ardenna tenuirostris) are taken as part of traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal cultural practice, as well as by commercial and recreational harvesters. The harvest is managed by the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment.

Duck and quail hunting is an ongoing activity in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, with hunting seasons in each of these states typically running from late autumn to winter. Only common species are declared as ‘game’ and can be hunted. There are strict bag limits and restrictions on locations where hunting is permissible, aimed at ensuring sustainability of the harvest. Although it appears that hunting is having no adverse impact on game bird populations, there is ongoing concern that hunting may adversely affect other species, including threatened species, during times of stress. For example, in Victoria, the total wetland area index was the lowest on record in 2015, with water storages at low levels. The ongoing decline and fragmentation of wetlands, combined with multiple pressures including hunting activities, place some species at an increased risk—for example, one of Australia’s rarest waterbirds, the freckled duck (Stictonetta naevosa).

Although the hunting and harvesting of native animals is subject to laws in all jurisdictions, monitoring of compliance with regulations for harvesting of species is variable across Australia. For instance, the growth in the Indigenous estate (often in remote and hard-to-access parts of Australia) has not been matched by an increase in management resources.

Harvesting for meat and skin products is largely restricted to species that are considered common (kangaroos and wallabies), and, in most cases, requires a permit. Commercial export of product is undertaken under state and territory management plans approved under the EPBC Act. An approved wildlife trade operation under the EPBC Act allows the export of fur products sourced from wallabies that are harvested for meat in the domestic market.

The depletion of some fish stocks and the question of ecological sustainability of some of Australia’s fisheries present an ongoing need for increased management to conserve biodiversity. By way of management, the EPBC Act requires an independent assessment of the environmental performance of all Commonwealth fisheries, and all fisheries from which product is exported. Further information on impacts of recreational fishing, and take for the aquarium trade and commercial fisheries is presented in the Marine environment report.

Pressures related to population size and lifestyles

One of the main drivers of environmental change identified in the Drivers report is human population growth. Australia’s population continues to increase, with a distinct regional pattern: population growth is concentrated in capital cities and in coastal areas. Although our population is relatively small compared with our land mass, Australia’s ecological footprint is the 13th highest globally, behind countries such as Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, the United States and Belgium (McLellan et al. 2014). The ecological footprint is a measure of the impact humans have on the environment. Our high ecological footprint indicates that we are consuming resources at a much faster rate than the planet can regenerate.

The impact of population growth in terms of urban expansion is discussed in detail in the Built environment report.

Consumption of water

Water volumes extracted from the environment to support households and industry have grown in the past few years, from 75,000 gigalitres (GL) in 2011–12 to 92,300 GL in 2013–14. Urban water demand increased from 2011 to 2014. Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth generally saw upswings in water abstraction, urban claim and household water supply during this period. In Australia, agriculture is the single largest water-consuming industry.

Governments in Australia purchase water entitlements for purposes that include protecting and restoring environmental assets. For example, the Victorian Government, through the Victorian Environmental Water Holder, holds more than 25 entitlements and delivered around 440,300 megalitres of environmental water to priority rivers, wetlands and floodplain systems from July 2015 to April 2016. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder increased entitlements for the Murray–Darling Basin in 2012–15, from 1368 GL to 2396 GL. Year-to-year variability in water use is influenced by weather and available water. Detailed information on Australia’s water use is available in the Inland water report.

Extractive industries

Mineral prospecting and exploration are allowed throughout most of Australia, and mining potentially affects biodiversity. Australia is a globally significant supplier of minerals and energy, holding a substantial proportion of the world’s known reserves of many important minerals. Mining exports have increased rapidly during recent decades on the back of unprecedented demand from China and other developing economies, with annual production of black coal and iron ore increasing exponentially (Andersen et al. 2014). However, individual mines are typically small—except for open-cut coal, iron-ore and bauxite mines—and collectively account for less than 0.26 per cent of the land mass of Australia (with only 0.64 per cent under granted mining leases).

The localised effects of mining can, however, have major detrimental effects, particularly on short-range endemic species, and there are many examples of serious environmental impacts from old mines that operated under lax environmental regulation. However, the greatest potential for negative impacts on biodiversity is not usually from individual mines, but from the cumulative impacts of extensive development in highly prospective regions (e.g. iron-ore mining in Western Australia’s Pilbara and coalmining in the Galilee Basin in central Queensland), or where diffuse exploration and development take place across large regions (e.g. coal-seam gas development in eastern Australia—see Box BIO2; and exploration for gas, oil and minerals across outback Australia). In these situations, mining can dominate regional development and potentially affect biodiversity through a combination of the scale of exploration activity, the mine sites themselves and, importantly, the roads, towns, pipelines, water supplies and ports required to service them (Andersen et al. 2014).

Box BIO2 Coal-seam gas

In eastern Australia, significant resources of coal-seam gas are known in the Bowen and Surat basins in Queensland. In New South Wales, reserves have been proven in the Sydney, Gunnedah, Clarence–Moreton and Gloucester basins. Coal-seam gas exploration, extraction, processing, storage and transport require the construction, maintenance and operation of various above-ground infrastructure. The grid of production wells and associated access tracks, as well as transmission pipelines to sea ports, can contribute to the perforation and fragmentation of remnant native vegetation.

Expansion of the coal-seam gas industry in eastern Australia could have further significant impacts on the remaining terrestrial biodiversity in areas that have already been extensively affected by other human activities, such as agriculture, mining and infrastructure development (Williams E et al. 2014).

The Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance conducted a priority threat management project on biodiversity across the coal-seam gas development region in Queensland (Ponce Reyes et al. 2016), and field research on the impacts of fire management in the grasslands near the coal-seam gas fields. The priority threat work showed that the cumulative impact of vegetation loss, land degradation, development (including the expansion of the coal-seam gas industry), invasive species and climate change in the Queensland Brigalow Belt is causing a significant negative outlook for species in the bioregion. Managing fire regimes and invasive plants was deemed to be the most cost-effective management strategy to ensure the future persistence of biodiversity.

However, in such a contested area, it noted that building and implementing a common vision among stakeholders is crucial for balancing biodiversity goals with social, economic and cultural objectives (Ponce Reyes et al. 2015).

The research into the impacts of fire management in the grasslands near the coal-seam gas fields found that any modest change in regional fire regimes was unlikely to have a significant impact on biodiversity in eucalypt-dominated grassy woodlands, and recommended that an ongoing fire-monitoring program be established.

Clearing and fragmentation of native ecosystems

Land clearing and fragmentation are noted as key threats in every jurisdictional SoE report. Half of all EPBC Act–listed species are considered to be at risk from habitat fragmentation. The Land report contains details of historical clearing in Australia, as well as current rates of clearing. In summary, rates of land clearing are broadly stable or decreasing in most states except Queensland. A relaxation of tree-clearing legislation was responsible for a significant increase in clearing rates of both remnant and nonremnant vegetation in Queensland in 2012–13. In particular, in Queensland’s reef catchments, clearing rates rose by 229 per cent between 2008–09 and 2013–14.

Across Australia, most clearing (more than 70 per cent) now occurs in areas that have previously been cleared (Figure BIO4). However, of land being cleared for the first time in 2015, more than 50 per cent occurred in Queensland.

Cresswell ID, Murphy H (2016). Biodiversity: Consumption and extraction of natural resources. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/biodiversity/topic/2016/consumption-and-extraction-natural-resources, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65ac828812