Interview with Deborah Knight, Afternoons on 2GB

21 May 2021


DEBORAH KNIGHT: Some welcome good news for our animals today, with the Federal Government releasing a 10-year strategy to protect threatened species right across the country. A program has been announced and rolled out to help boost populations of up to 100 threatened species, and they're targeting a broad range of species, broader than they have before, and looking at the way technologies can actually help, setting targets, too. Sussan Ley is the Environment Minister. She's on the line for us now. Minister, thanks for joining.

SUSSAN LEY: It's a pleasure, Deb. Good afternoon to you and your listeners.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: How is this threatened species strategy different to what we've had in the past?

SUSSAN LEY: We have had an earlier one. This one has two action plans attached to it. It has $57 million to kick it off. And it's more detailed and responds to that call for action following the Black Summer fires and our recognition of the cumulative effect of drought, climate change, disasters, and what we need to do in response to protect our precious biodiversity. We've got between 600,000 and 700,000 known species in Australia. We're one of the most biodiverse nations on Earth. And this strategy is different, too, Deb, because it includes marine ecosystems. We've got more than 4500 species of marine fish in our in-shore waters. I was out on Sydney Harbour looking at some seahorse hotels this morning.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:   Seahorse hotels? Wow. What are they?

SUSSAN LEY:  Well in Sydney Harbour, we have a little seahorse called White's Seahorse. I listed it as endangered last December. And part of its- the issue that faces, it gets tangled up in nets, or chewed up by propellers, or simply swept away. So these hotels are- imagine a metal framed cage if you like, but the seahorse can get in, but it's safe in there, and that it can breed up. And that's happening right now actually, in the SEA LIFE, in the aquarium where as a conservation organisation, they're learning more about this seahorse and how to reintroduce it back into this area further up near Port Stephens. But just so much work that's being done to manage our marine ecosystems in a way that looks after our fish. We had a huge ocean leadership package announced recently and that was profiling Australia's international role in the oceans.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:  And how many species are threatened in Australia? Because we often hear of the koalas, and we've seen all too well from the summer bushfires, the impact that it's had on where they live, obviously, and on the, animals themselves, very difficult for them to escape the bush fires, and many of them were killed. But apart from koalas, how many species are under threat in Australia?

SUSSAN LEY:  Look, several hundreds and I'm listing new species all the time. And people often think, as they should do, of the iconic species like koalas, but there's a lot of our plants, or as we call them ecological communities, because it's how the plants are in their natural state that are under threat. And when I do listings following the recommendations of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, I take their advice and we look at how we can best manage and best influence any development near these threatened species and plants.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: So are you putting a stop to developments? Because that's the only thing that really is going to protect them, isn't it? If we've got so many species and animals and plants, and you're adding more of them to the list every year, it's the encroachment on the habitat that's the biggest threat.

SUSSAN LEY:  Habitat loss is absolutely vital when it comes to protecting our species; yes. So what happens when a species is listed is that if you want to do any development, you have to consider that through the EPBC Act, and there's a similar acts at state level. And the effect of the development on the threatened species is carefully worked out, analysed, and if necessary, it either doesn't go ahead or it doesn't go ahead in the way that you want it to, or you have what we call off-setting conditions. So if you take some level of habitat somewhere, you might have to replace much more of it somewhere else. But what our EPBC Act does is look at the effect on every single threatened species and do it in a really careful, analytical way. But what we also need is really good data on where these species are, what the baseline is. And you mentioned technology when you talked about our threatened species strategy. I do want to see technology such as drones, geospatial mapping, bringing together baseline data and putting it in one place so we actually know. Part of our response to koalas is a koala count, a koala audit. Because when I became Environment Minister and people talked about the effect of bushfires on koalas, I said: well where are they and how many are there? And no scientist could actually give me the answer. So we need to get this- you know, we need to know exactly where they are and in what numbers.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: It's a tricky balancing act, isn't it, between ensuring the survival of these species, plants and animals, and also allowing the development to occur in a country like Australia.

SUSSAN LEY: It is and you can do it in a way that balances both. But sometimes, you can't. And when that happens, I might, for example refuse a development, as I have done with a wind farm in Queensland, with a coastal development on a Ramsar listed wetland. You know, sometimes the impact is too great. What's important is that we know what the impact would be on the threatened species and we take a careful precautionary approach. And when we need to, we do balance up the needs of people, the needs of development. And sometimes, it's a safety matter, like a highway. And it's really important that you do that in the best possible way. But then sometimes you can move the actual trajectory of the road and work together. Communities, I always say, Deb, conservation is everyone's business. This isn't something that governments should be doing on high, but always working with communities, as we've done post-bushfires. We've said, how do you want to help build back your region better? And communities, they just understand. Indigenous Australian, Indigenous science and Western knowledge comes together in so much of the management of our landscapes.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:  All right, well, it's an interesting package, and thank you for coming on and sharing some more information about it, the announcement today.

SUSSAN LEY:  It's a pleasure.

DEBORAH KNIGHT:  Environment Minister Sussan Ley. You're on Afternoons with Deborah Knight.