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Thursday, May 24, 2012

So what's the deal with biodiversity, anyway?

Do you know what day it is? Neither do I. But I do know that yesterday was World Turtle Day and Tuesday was the International Day for Biological Diversity, specifically Marine Biodiversity.

That raises the question, what do we mean when we talk about 'biodiversity'? We throw the term around an awful lot here, both in terms of protecting it and using it as the measure of the health of an ecosystem. But what does biodiversity look like? Will it strengthen my stock portfolio? And what happens if it disappears?

What does biodiversity look like?

Just look around!

At the most basic level, you can see what biodiversity looks like by looking at the people around you. Despite having far more similarities than differences (basic shape, number of limbs, etc.), their unique combination of genes gives them individual features like skin, eye and hair colour. Of course, those are just the obvious examples, as our subtle genetic differences are responsible for everything from our ability to taste certain foods to our risk of cancer.

If you are like me, and don't like to spend your time studying other people (or feel that it's a bit creepy), consider killer whales instead. Killer whale populations throughout the world's oceans have remarkably different appearances, not to mention completely different behaviours, diets and even “dialects”.

In fact the genetic differences between several of these whale populations are great enough that researchers proposed types B and C in the Antarctic and transient killer whales in the North Pacific be considered as separated species.

If you want to see what truly spectacular biodiversity looks like in a group of closely related species, check out this gallery of nudibranch photos by the Marine Detective:

Will it strengthen my stock portfolio?

Yes, particularly if your portfolio is made up of fish stocks.

The idea is that diversity within and between marine organisms acts like diversity in a stock portfolio. As conditions change, some stocks do better and some do worse, but overall the portfolio stays relatively stable.

This was demonstrated with sockeye salmon populations in Bristol Bay. Salmon stocks in each river contain tens to hundreds of separate populations, each adapted to the local conditions in the lakes and tributaries in which they live. A recent paper found that if the Bristol Bay stock was made up of a single large population, rather than several hundred small ones, the numbers of returning salmon each year would be a lot less consistent. So much less consistent, in fact, that the fishery would be forced to close once every two to three years instead of every twenty-five.

What happens if it disappears?

Terrible things, honestly.

A recent study in Nature shows that species loss may be having as devastating an effect on the Earth's (and Ocean's) ecosystems as climate change, ocean acidification and pollution. The effects of this loss will likely be compounded, as the diversity being lost has traditionally made these ecosystems more resilient to changing conditions. It's kind of like being chronically stressed, not sleeping and then getting caught out in the rain - your chances of getting sick are much greater than if just one of those things happened.

So if biological diversity is so important, what can be done for its preservation? Certainly, setting aside areas of the land and ocean as natural reserves has shown positive results. As I wrote about in an earlier post, well-designed marine protected areas and networks of marine protected areas can greatly help in protecting marine biodiversity.

Sadly, while ocean covers over two thirds of the earth's surface, less than one percent of these waters are protected. Not only that, but if those areas are not properly managed then they are about as effective at protecting their biodiversity as the unprotected areas around them.

Here in British Columbia, we are quite fortunate to still have some fairly intact and diverse marine ecosystems. But according to Brian Starzomski, a professor of biodiversity conservation and ecological restoration at the University of Victoria, the recent cuts the government of Canada has made to its environmental programs put our biodiversity at risk:
Canadian environmental science is under attack. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, created by Mulroney's government, is being gutted. Funding for science programs in Parks Canada is being axed, effectively destroying biodiversity science in Canada's most beautiful places. Marine-pollution monitoring funding was just dramatically chopped, and the operating budgets of the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre and the Kluane Lake Research Station have been decimated.
That's not the only way recent government moves put biodiversity at risk… but this is a blog, not a rant. Biodiversity is a fancy name for the web of life. It’s extremely strong and flexible as long as all the strands remain intact. And that's the beauty of it!

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