Approaching the tipping point?

Erhai_hu_panorama_Apr19

From Kunming we travelled by train 200 km to the east, to Dàlī, which sits between Ērhāi Hú (literally ‘ear-shaped lake’), another of Yúnnán’s plateau lakes, and the Cāng Shān mountains.  These rise to about 4000 metres and still, even at this time of year, have patches of snow near their summits.   Dàlī’s old city has escaped the ravages of modernisation that have blighted many Chinese cities and we spent hours wandering the narrow streets lined with the traditional Bai architecture, along with a very large number of Chinese tourists.

On one day we hired bicycles and cycled along quiet roads lined with market gardens to reach the lake, then turned north and followed the lake shore for about five kilometres.  There were many areas of semi-natural shoreline along this stretch, with a fringe of wetland, but the filamentous algae (mostly Cladophora) coating the rocks that had been piled up along the settled parts of the shoreline told their own story.  This lake is clearly in better health than Diān Chí but it, too, is nutrient-rich.

Erhai_Hu_algae

A fringe of filamentous algae, along with floating leaves of Trapas natans(Eurasian water chestnut) growing on a jetty beside Ērhāi Hú.

Just after midday we pulled into a small family-run restaurant at the edge of a village.   A short conversation between the waitress and Ed (our only Mandarin-speaker) revealed that they specialised in serving fish from the lake so that seemed to be the obvious choice for our lunch.  The waitress disappeared, then reappeared with a net which she dunked into a tank behind our table and, with a couple of deft flicks, pulled it up with two carp wriggling inside.   These she quickly dispatched, cleaned and took into the kitchen.   About twenty minutes later she reappeared with a delicious stew comprising the whole fish cut into chunks, a generous seasoning of dried red chilli and tongue-numbing Sichuan pepper, lightly-pickled vegetables (white radish, celery and turnip) and some green leaves.   This, along with rice and endless green tea, and with Ērhāi Hú as a backdrop, created a perfect lunch for appetites whetted by our exercise.

Erhai_hu_fish_soup

From tank to table in twenty minutes: our fish stew made from carp from Ērhāi Hú.

We had seen some locals fishing with poles, and there is also some commercial fishing using cormorants in the area. However, the abundance of fish on the menu confirmed my hunch that the many booms we could see across bays along the lakeshore were fish farms (maybe ‘fish ranches’ is a more appropriate term when the fish have, relatively speaking, plenty of space in which to roam and forage).   The nutrients pouring into the lake here are, at least, able to support a economically-viable industry rather than undermine the supply of resources, as is the case for Diān Chí.

Of course, the story is not that simple.   In the past, Ērhāi Hú, like Diān Chí, had some endemic species, found nowhere else, but these have not been recorded for about 20 years.   Pollution from surrounding cities is the most likely explanation and, if Ērhāi Hú is in a better state than Diān Chí, then this is partly because the lake is larger and deeper, the catchment area is bigger and the scale of urban development is smaller (Dàlī is about a twentieth of the size of Kunming).  That said, local scientists have identified a significant declining trend in water quality, particularly over the past 25 years.   Importantly, however, they also note that it is not too late to do something about the situation.

Erhai_Hu_fishermen

Fishermen cleaning their nets beside Ērhāi Hú.  

In brief, nutrient concentrations in Ērhāi Hú are increasing. That leads to a more productive ecosystem which is, up to a point, good for commercial fishing but also means that oxygen concentrations drop, which is bad for the fish.   High nutrient concentrations also mean more algae but, at the present, these are not so high that cyanobacterial blooms develop as they have done in Diān Chí.  That means that the water in the lake can still be used as a drinking water supply for Dàlī and its environs.   However, if nutrient concentrations rise further then oxygen concentrations may pass a tipping point when it becomes almost impossible to manage lake phosphorus concentrations.

This is because phosphorus and other nutrients accumulate over time in lake sediments.  Phosphorus is not very soluble in the presence of oxygen, but becomes more soluble as conditions in the sediment and overlying water turn anoxic.   That means that when dissolved oxygen concentrations fall to the point where there is none at the sediment surface, the sediments are no longer a ‘sink’ for excess phosphorus, but become a ‘source’, releasing the stored nutrients back into the water.   From this point forwards, eutrophication in the lake becomes self-perpetuating and no amount of regulation alone will reverse this.

Better regulation now, on the other hand, might prevent the lake reaching this stage.  That, in turn, will protect the drinking water supply for the region, the economic benefits from the fishery and other ecosystem services. A survey of the local community revealed a willingness to pay an extra 27 Yuan a month for five years continuously in order to achieve this.  This is a small sum in absolute terms (27 Yuan is just over £3), but represents, on average, 1.7% of household income.   The economics of water quality improvement must look even more attractive to the regional government: if Ērhāi Hú crosses this tipping point then the investment in alternative water supplies, as was required in Kunming, will be equally expensive.  Looking at it from this perspective, applying a sensible ‘polluter pays’ policy now should be no more painful for the average resident than having to pay for new reservoirs to replace the resource on their doorstep.

The stretch of lakefront along which we cycled also had a steady trade in photographs, with photographers ready with diaphanous dresses for prospective models, and a number of ways for them to pose.  The girls in the photograph below posed, informally, on stones whilst friends photographed them using smartphones, but some photographers placed their models on the tops of jeeps or in hanging chairs, with an uninterrupted view of the lake behind. In their own way, they were valuing the broad scale panorama that the lake offered, just as we had enjoyed more local offerings during our lunch.  The challenge for the next decade, then, is to make the links between these valuations and the ecology of the lake, so that any price increases are recognised as sound investments in the future of Dàlī rather than as yet another form of negative taxation.

Erhai_hu_posers

Women posing for photographs with Ērhāi Hú as a backdrop

References

Wang, H., Shi, Y., Kim, Y. & Kamata, T. (2015).  Economic value of water quality improvement by one grade level in Erhai Lake: a willingness-to-pay survey and a benefit-transfer study.   Frontiers of Economics in China 10: 168-199.

Wang, S., Zhang, L., Ni, L., Zhao, H., Jiao, L., Yang, S., Guo, L. & Shen, J. (2015). Ecological degeneration of Erhai Lake and prevention measures.  Environmental Earth Sciences74: 3839-3847.

Zhang, K., Dong, X., Yang, X., Kattel, G., Zhao, Y. & Wang, R. (2018).  Ecological shift and resilience in China’s lake systems during the last two centuries.  Global and Planetary Change165: 147-159.

 

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Reflections from a Green Lake

Green_lake_panorama_#1

Our guest house in Kunming is a few hundred metres from the Green Lake, which sounds like an obvious magnet to someone with an interest in algae.   The name itself seems to embody the well-publicised problems of water pollution in this huge country and I walked down to the edge fully expecting to gather material for a post about extreme eutrophication.

This is not a post about extreme eutrophication.  That’s partly because it is not easy to get close enough to the water itself in order to look closely at the algae.  I did see some floating cyanobacterial scums amidst the duck weed and lotus plants, but I’m also not equipped with a high-power microscope whilst on my travels, so would not have been able to make a detailed diagnosis, even if I could have got a sample.   However, my feelings about the lake have changed over the four days that I have been here, and as I believe that travellers should prepared to be changed by what they encounter, I thought I should explain my change of heart.

Green lake is a small lake with a perimeter of about two kilometres and an area of about 15 hectares set in the middle of Kunming.   According to a book I have been reading, this whole area used to be part of the much larger Dianchi Lake (which will be the subject of a future post). However, during the Ming Dynasty, about 600 years ago, the area that we now know as Kunming was reclaimed, leaving Green Lake as a low-lying remnant.   At this time it was known as “Caihaizi”, the vegetable lake, perhaps because of the lotus plants that grew there.   If you want to apply a very basic measure of ‘naturalness’ to a lake, you could start by measuring the proportion of the perimeter that is artificial. In the case of Green Lake, the perimeter is 100 per cent artificial, unless you add in the islands and the causeways leading to these, in which case the proportion of artificial margins rises to 200 per cent or more.

Green_lake_panorama_#2

A corner of Green Lake, showing duckweed blooms in the foreground and one of the causeways on the right.  The upper picture shows the lake with lotus plants in the foreground and Kunming rising up in the background. 

Yet the lake margins and the islands are thrumming with activity: joggers use the lake margin as a running track, badminton players set up nets between trees and thrash shuttlecocks back and forth whilst elderly men show off wiry torsos on the gym equipment.  Then there are the more quintessentially Chinese activities: groups of people practising Tai’chi and Quigong just a few metres from a dance class practising some moves.   On one of the islands about half a dozen different styles of dance are taking place, each moving to an amplified tune, all of which seem to bleed into one another.  We sat and ate cold noodles (local speciality: better than it sounds) in a café at one side until the noise drove us away.   A little further from here, on a bandstand on one of the causeways, a group of musicians played traditional instruments.   There were also pedalos and motorboats for hire on some of the sections of the lake, plus shops selling Yunnan tea and coffee and other souvenirs.

Green_Lake_panorama_#3

Cultural ecosystem services at Green Lake, Kunming.  The top image shows a group practising tai’chi and the bottom image shows a dance class nearby. 

After a few days here I am growing to love Green Lake.   It is a small ‘green lung’ set in the heart of a large, busy city to which local inhabitants, especially the elderly, seem to gravitate.  I have not written about ecosystem services – the benefits humankind derive from natural systems – for some time.  When I last touched on this subject, it was to consider the conflict between conservationist’s desire for naturalness and ‘cultural ecosystem services’ (see “More about ecosystem services”).   Green Lake seems to encapsulate this conflict very well: it is about as far from a ‘natural’ lake as it is possible to get yet, at the same time, it plays a role in the health and vitality of the local community partly as a result of the many modifications that have occurred over time.

To paraphrase jay-z, China has 99 [environmental] problems but Green Lake ain’t one.   I’ll come back to one of these in the next post but, meanwhile, I’m going to take one more stroll through the elaborately decorated gates at the entrance to the closest causeway and enjoy the pleasures of Green Lake for a final time before we move on.

Green_Lake_panorama_#4

A gateway to one of the Green Lake’s causeways in Kunming.

Reference

The book to which I refer is “Green Lake: Reflections from the Surface of China” by Hardy Wieting Jr (www.chinagreenlake.com), a conservationist who happened to be staying at the Lost Garden Guest House, near Green Lake, at the same time as us.

Where’s the Wear’s weir?

There was minor excitement in Durham – and some consternation amongst the rowing fraternity – when river levels dropped rapidly overnight last week.  The river had been very low for some time but was 20 cm lower on Wednesday morning (28 June) due, we learned, to a failure in a sluice gate on the weir just below Prebends Bridge.   It does not look very dramatic in the picture above (a temporary – but not wholly effective – repair had been effected a couple of days earlier) but, as the hydrograph below shows, it was enough to alter the levels to a point where rowing becomes difficult.  The following two days were wet and miserable and the rain caused levels to increase again (note the steep rise on the evening of 29 June as floodwater washed down from Weardale) before gradually tailing off over the next few days.  My photograph was taken in the afternoon of 2 July when levels were back to normal.

“Normal” is, however, a tricky word to apply to any river, so diverse are the alterations to which they are subject.  For me, the ponded section of the Wear upstream of the weir is all I have known and the view of the cathedral looming over the Fulling Mill and its weir is the quintessential impression of Durham, immortalised in J.M.W. Turner’s paintings.  Without that weir there would be no rowing on the river – an important “ecosystem service” within the city (see “Bring on the dambusters …”) – yet that dip in the hydrograph on Tuesday morning offers us a rare glimpse into what the river would have looked like in summers in the far past.  Rowers would be not be very happy were this to pesist but perhaps canoeists would prefer faster-flowing water?  Maximising the ecosystem services that a river provides often involves a trade-off between competing needs.

River levels in the River Wear at New Elvet (NZ 272    ) from 27 June to 2 July.  The orange line indicates the point at which flooding may occur.   From: https://flood-warning-information.service.gov.uk/station/8288425

I saw the opposite situation on the River Tees at Egglestone, just downstream from Barnard Castle.   Turner visited this location as part of the same trip that took him to Durham in 1797 and he sketched the view of Egglestone Abbey which he later worked up into a painting and engraving.   In his pictures you can see an old paper mill, what appears to be a weir across the Tees and open ground on the steep land in front of the abbey itself.   The view today is quite different: the mill is still there, albeit in a dilapidated condition and there is thick woodland on the river banks which completely obscures the view of the abbey.   There is also no sign of the weir but the mill race that diverts river water through the mill can still be seen, though water only flows through when the river is high.

I did wonder if this meant that the weir had been completely washed away since the mill had fallen derelict but another possibility is that the weir is artistic license on Turner’s part.  He made his sketch in 1797 but there is no obvious weir in the drawing that has survived.  The painting on which the engraving is based dates from about twenty years later, and it is possible that the weir was added to the composition, based on memories of other localities that he visited on that trip (including Durham).   The presence of a weir also cannot be confirmed from a painting by Thomas Girtin from about the same time but it is possible that he, too, worked up his watercolours some time after his sketching trips and relied on hazy memories.  And, as we know that Girton and Turner were acquainted, Turner may have fed off Girton’s interpretation of the scene, compounding the intital error.

Egglestone Abbey near Barnard Castle.  Engraved by T. Higham after J.M.W. Turner. 1822.   Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

The other possibility is that we are not looking at the same river as Turner or Girtin.   The river we look at today is downstream of major reservoirs at Cow Green and on two tributaries, the Greta and Balder, none of which were present when they visited.   Cow Green, in particular, was designed with regulation of the water supply in mind, in order to ensure that there was enough for the industries in Teesside.  One consequence is that there is more water in the Tees during the summer now than when Turner and Girtin visited.   Maybe a weir would have been necessary at that time to keep the water level high enough to feed the mill race during the summer?

So here, as in the Wear, “normal” is a difficult word to apply.   First impressions are that the river is now in a more natural state than two hundred years ago because an impediment to natural flow has been removed.  When we look more closely, however, we see that the river we see today is, in fact, a different type of “abnormal” to that which Turner and Girton sketched.   But we also need to remember that Turner and Girton’s interpretations are not entirely trustworthy guides to the past either.  There is much to be said for walking backwards into the future but occasionally this may mean that we trip ourselves up …

The view across the River Tees towards Abbey Mill and Egglestone Abbey from approximately the same place as Turner’s view.  The mill is just visible amongst the trees in the middle of the picture.

Reference

David Hill (1996).  Turner and the North.   Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

 

So what?

so_what_exactly

And so to Trento, and the Use of Algae for Monitoring Rivers symposium.   I approached with mild trepidation (see comments in “The human ecosystem of environmental management …”).   The last time I attended, Diatom Jihad was just getting started, and hordes of fundamentalists were swarming over the plains of scientific reason, eliminating any apostates who dared suggest alternative methods of evaluating the condition of freshwaters.   To be honest, I was probably part of that horde, certainly in the early days, though I think that the True Believers always doubted my ultimate loyalty to the Holy Books produced by Lange-Bertalot, Krammer, Witkowski and their acolytes.

I have, indeed, had my own vision on the Road to Damascus (forgive me for mixing my religious metaphors).   It was, in reality, the culmination of several conversations and much thinking but it can be encapsulated by a comment made by a biologist from Wessex Water, one of the utility companies who operate sewage works in the UK. I had been part of a team working on the River Wylye in Wiltshire and we were discussing our results.   She looked up and said (I am paraphrasing now): “I’m not disagreeing with what you are telling us [i.e. that the river had higher concentrations of nutrients than was ideal for the ecology]. But we need to justify the price rises that would result from improved effluent treatment, and the public don’t know what diatoms are”.   She had put her finger on a very major issue: that many of us involved in applied ecology are so focused on the fine details of the ecosystems that we study, that we lose sight of the bigger picture.

I tried to emphasise this in my talk and the cartoon above follows Billy Wilder’s maxim: “If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you”.   And, to be fair, I was not the only person who made this point.   Jan Stevenson from the University of Michigan gave us a good overview of the current situation in the USA and also emphasised the need to relate the changes in diatom assemblages to ecosystem services and, if possible, to determine thresholds in responses that help to develop consensus amongst stakeholders. So perhaps the winds of change really are now blowing on both sides of the Atlantic?

Towards the end of my talk, I used the phrase “healthy streams are slippery streams”, used by Emma Rosi-Marshall of the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Health in New York.   She is using this phrase as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the role that benthic algae play in ecosystem health. Phil Harding, the co-author of my talk, saw this written on one of my slides and commented that one of the sampling locations that his team visit regularly in the English Midlands is called “Slippery Stones” – a beautiful site on the edge of the Peak District. Is it too fanciful to suggest that this place actually has a name that reflects the quality of the freshwater ecosystem?

Slippery-Stones

“Slippery Stones”, the actual place name of a site on the upper River Derwent in Derbyshire, UK.

Dipping a toe into the River Jordan

I came across an intriguing short paper recently which got me thinking again about a topic that I wrote about a year ago. I was intrigued, at the time, by how ecosystem services dovetailed with the ideas of ecosystem health that preoccupy my working day and suggested, provocatively, that there may be some instances where stakeholders might not thank ecologists for the high quality ecosystems that we want to achieve (see “More about ecosystem services” and “Ecosystem services … again”).    There is a class of ecosystem services called “cultural services”, which includes uses such as education, amenity and, intriguingly, spirituality.   I have been searching, subsequently, for good examples of rivers and lakes providing “spiritual” ecosystem services and here, at last, is one hiding right under my nose.

The paper describes use of the Jordan River for baptism, and the problems caused by the ongoing regional conflicts along with environmental degradation.   The river is the de facto border between Israel and Jordan and has been heavily militarised since 1967, with access to the river limited to just three locations, one each in Israel, the Occupied Territories (West Bank) and Jordan. Problems are compounded by the extensive use of the Jordan and tributaries as a source of water for this semi-arid region, and by discharges of semi-treated sewage into the river from Israel.   This has reduced the flow to a muddy trickle, about one tenth of its natural quantity. This, combined with the pollution, hardly makes the river a desirable place in which to be totally immersed.   Whether the river was ever crystal clear is open to debate: in 2 Kings chapter 5 we read of Naaman, a general from the eighth century BC, objecting to being told to bathe in the Jordan to cure himself of leprosy.

Jordan_at_Bethany

The River Jordan at Bethany, Jordan (the church of John the Baptist on the left hand side) with, on the right, the baptism site at Qasr al Yehud in the Occupied Territories (West Bank), seen from the Al Maghtas baptism site in Jordan (photos: Heather Kelly)

Reading this article reminded me of one of the stranger instances in my professional life when a local clergyman asked for my advice on a location for an outdoor baptism in the Durham area.   I suggested a couple of locations where the river was accessible from the bank and not too deep, whilst being deep enough for a kneeling person to be dunked.   I also suggested, from my knowledge of the river, a careful search of the river bed in advance in case there was broken glass, and recommended that the initiate kept his or her mouth closed to ensure that they did not swallow too many bacteria.   I was not being consulted on the theology of baptism, else I might have queried whether a purely symbolic act needed all this fuss and bother. And, indeed, we might ask what a baptism candidate gains from being dunked in the Jordan that would not have been achieved using a font full of chlorinated water.   Such issues are for another blogger on another day.

Varanasi_puja

Performing puja in the River Ganges from the ghats at Varanasi, October 1984.

Indeed making catty comments about other people’s attitudes to sacraments whilst writing about the Israel-Jordan border has a deep irony of its own.   Would that people historically had shown a little more tolerance to other people’s spirituality, the world would be a far more peaceful place.   My intention, when I started writing this piece, was to highlight how rivers can play a role in people’s spiritual life. We don’t need to understand or accept the beliefs of those people, just to recognise that some places – rivers, sometimes – can hold great spiritual significance and that we, as guardians of those rivers, need to respect this.

I was also reminded of my own visit to the holy city of Varanasi in India, thirty years ago, when I watched Hindus using a different (but equally polluted) river as part of their observances.   It was difficult for me, as a westerner, to understand the significance of the river to Hindus yet all around me there were people who clearly saw this river as integral to their worship. The problem, as with so much in this modern world, lies in not understanding what others regard as important.   Some questions, it seems, cannot be answered by scientific rationalism alone.

Reference

de Châtel, F. (2014). Baptism in the Jordan River: immersing in a contested transboundary watercourse.   WIREs Water 1: 219-227.

Ecosystem services … again

Sorry to bang the same drum repeatedly, but I want to return to the theme I explored on 17 November, when I suggested that not all situations where man interacts with water will necessary benefit from “good ecological status”.   Last time, I used the example of angling, suggesting that, as fish yields were a consequence of productivity, there would be situations where anglers, an important stakeholder community, would prefer enriched ecosystem to the pristine ecosystems that us Fundamentalist Ecologists yearn for.

I also mentioned in my post on 9 November that other recreational users of water, rowers, for example, might not appreciate the removal of weirs, even if some conservationists regarded this as desirable.  Having written these words, I started to wonder if there were any situations where conservationists themselves might not regard good status to be a desirable outcome?

I think we can take as a general rule-of-thumb that protecting natural habitats and restoring degraded habitats to their “pristine” state is a general goal for conservation.   But maybe there are exceptions that go against this general dogma?   Perhaps, too, conservationists sometimes overstate the link between high quality habitat and naturalness?  One example that springs to mind is the recent spread of the otter.  For a long time, we regarded the spread of the otter as a sign of the gradually increasing health of our freshwaters.  Yet it is now so widely distributed, often in rivers that are not pristine, that we need to re-examine this assumption.   Evidence for the ink between otters and toxic pollutants that biomagnify along the food chain is quite good.  However, some other types of pollution, such as a moderate amount of enrichment by organic and inorganic nutrients might not be problematic and, indeed, by boosting overall productivity, might raise the carrying capacity of the habitat.  I have never seen this idea explored in detail but it would be worth a look.

Another example of an organism that might actually thrive from enrichment is an unprepossessing but rather rare aquatic plant called Najas marina which is found in only six locations in the UK.   One of these is Upton Great Broad, a habitat that is far from pristine.   Yet it appears that Najas marina is a relatively recent arrival to this lake, only being recorded after the onset of enrichment.   This, of course, creates a conundrum as restoring Upton Great Broad back to more “natural” conditions might bring other conservation benefits, but what would happen to the population of Najas marina if we did this?

I recall a situation that arose in the early 1990s when Northumbrian Water were required, by EU law, to build a sewage works at the mouth of the Tees, rather than discharge raw sewage as they had been doing.  The problem was that the sewage provided an excellent food supply for worms on the tidal mudflats which, in turn, sustained an internationally-important wading bird sanctuary.   This location was, indeed, protected by a different piece of EU legislation, the Birds Directive.   Work on the wading birds of the Tees Estuary was led by Professor Peter Evans of Durham University whilst I was still working there.  I have, however, not seen any of this published in a peer-reviewed journal, which is a shame as it would provide a thought-provoking case study of the trade-offs that many involved in applied ecology have to face.   Here, as in the other examples I’ve mentioned, it might well be the case that an ecosystem at less than good status is actually of greater conservation value than one that has been restored back to good status.

At this point I had better duck my head below the parapet and wait to see what kind of responses this generates.

ecosystem_services_v_WFD_#2

A diagram illustrating the relationship between conservation and ecological status.  The EU’s Water Framework Directive expresses the quality of an ecosystem in terms of five classes, from “high” to “bad”, with good status being the theoretical target that all water bodies should achieve.

References

Ayres, K.R., Sayer, C.D., Skeate, E.R. & Perrow, M.R. (2008). Palaeolimnology as a tool to inform shallow lake management: an example from Upton Great Broad, Norfolk, UK.  Biodiversity and Conservation 17: 2153-2168

Mason, C.F. & MacDonald, S.M. (1990).  Impact of organochlorine pesticide residues and PCBs on otters (Lutra lutra) in eastern England.  Science of the Total Environment 138: 147-160.

Bring on the Dambusters …

Mild annoyance lies behind this post.  I’m writing as I travel home from a two day conference, organised by the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management with the title ‘Ecosystem Services 3: Rivers – A Framework For Action’.  The meeting had several interesting papers but, at times, lacked a hard critical edge, exemplified by the following example:

Two of the early speakers commented on the problems of physical modification of rivers, noting that in-stream structures such as weirs often present serious obstacles to the migration of salmon and other migratory fish.   In theory, you should be able to construct fish passes around these weirs so that the fish are not obstructed.  In practice, however, many fish passes are not particularly successful.   ‘Why not’ suggested one questioner after the talk (representing Natural England, I think), ‘just remove the weirs altogether and restore natural flow regimes.’   This suggestion was greeted with applause and even a few ironic cheers from parts of the audience.

About six months ago, however, I joined the local rowing club in Durham. ‘Recreation’ is a ‘service’ that society gets from our rivers, just as much as nature and wildlife, the primary focus of interest for this audience of conservationists.   Rowing here depends upon the weirs across the River Wear (you can see one of them in the classic view of Durham Cathedral which I posted on 29 July. (This view, itself, could be classified as an ‘aesthetic’ ecosystem service).  There are about 500 members of the rowing club and, at a guess, between 500 and 1000 students in University and College crews.  That’s a huge constituency whose interests are in conflict with the ambitions of many conservationists.

rowing_on_the_Wear

Rowing on the River Wear, July 2013. 

I had come to the conference to see how this type of conflict of interest would be resolved, and was a little surprised to see how little it featured.  Only three of the 18 speakers addressed the issue of trade-offs between different ecosystem services and only half made any reference to public participation or stakeholder engagement at all.  I heard a good example of constructive engagement with anglers on the River Itchen during a workshop session but this was a situation that could be sold as a ‘win-win’, with both anglers and conservation benefitting.  For the most part it was conservationists talking to conservationists without anyone to challenge their assumptions.   I left feeling with a feeling that life out there in the real world may not always be this cosy.