Saturday, June 12, 2010

Happy Year of Biodiversity

It’s ironic that during the International Year of Biodiversity, the US is experiencing an environmental disaster on a massive scale. Unfortunately, this disaster is just another failure in environmental protection, part of a long series of failures which seem to characterize this Year of Biodiversity. Even as the political will behind the 2010 biodiversity targets seems to have waned (and most indicators suggest that declines in diversity are unchecked), evidence continues to mount for the functional value of biological diversity.

This week’s issue of Nature features a couple of pieces focusing on biodiversity through a political or economic lens. Although the economic benefits and services provided by species-level diversity has been well illustrated, in “Population diversity and the portfolio effect in an exploited species”, Schindler et al. (Nature, 465, 609-612) new evidence that at even finer divisions than the species, diversity plays an important role. In this case, they find that genetic diversity at the population level is an additional and significant contributor to ecosystem stability. Schindler et al. examine the effects of hundreds of locally-adapted populations of sockeye salmon on the valuable salmon fishery in the Bristol Bay area of Alaska. They suggest that the portfolio effect (or the robustness of biodiversity to variable conditions – like a diverse financial portfolio) can function at the population level as well as the species level. High levels of intra-specific diversity can produce temporal variation among populations in response to environmental variability, resulting in catches that are more stable year-to-year, and making fishery closures less likely, a clear economic benefit.

Populations are declining at an even faster rate than species themselves: the more we understand the importance of conserving diversity at multiple biological scales (ecosystem, species, population, even the individual?), the more complicated and onerous the task of conserving diversity becomes.

In the same issue of Nature is an editorial on the possibility of an IPCC-like panel for biodiversity. At this very moment (give or take a few time zones), government representatives from all over the world are deciding whether or not to create this panel. So far, they have a catchy name for it, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which hopefully hasn’t been written in stone. But they also have a strong recognition of the inextricable links between biodiversity, ecosystem services and human wellbeing – links that are highlighted in the Schindler et al. article. Furthermore, an explicit goal of IPBES is to address the currently tangled state of biodiversity organizations, conventions and programs by forming a unified front of sound biodiversity policy and science. The Convention on Biological Diversity had set a target of halting biodiversity loss by 2010 and we have failed spectacularly. Is IPBES the solution?

Wanted: an IPCC for biodiversity. Nature, 465, 525-525

Schindler, D.E., Hilborn, R., Chasco, B., Boatright, C.P., Quinn, T.P., Rogers, L.A. & Webster, M.S. Population diversity and the portfolio effect in an exploited species. Nature, 465, 609-612

By Nick Mirotchnick and Caroline Tucker

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