The federal government should establish a new agency similar to the Bureau of Meteorology (Bom) to observe and make forecasts on the state of Australia’s wildlife, according to leading Australian scientists.
The Australian Academy of Science says a “biodiversity Bom” could address gaps in data and monitoring of Australia’s threatened species, with current information systems on the country’s unique flora and fauna “broken”.
The call for the new agency is contained in a briefing sent to all members of parliament that urges the government to implement the recommendations of a review of Australia’s environment laws in full.
Scientists including the Australian Academy of Science fellow Craig Moritz, the ecologist Chris Dickman, and Helene Marsh, the chair of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee that advises the government on threatened species listings, contributed to the document.
“On every available measure, Australia is failing to halt, slow or reverse biodiversity loss and species decline,” the briefing states.
The scientists said in their briefing a new national agency could observe, analyse, forecast and warn on the state and trends of Australia’s biodiversity, in the same way the Bom provided similar information on weather and climate.
They said Australia’s current standards of data curation on species decline and its accessibility to the general public were “inadequate”.
“This is an unacceptable situation, one that is not tolerated in other domains such as weather information, biosecurity, health and welfare,” the briefing states.
The scientists argue that a national agency would bring benefits not just for threatened species but also project proponents wanting timely assessments.
Moritz said Australia had world-class scientific capability in the area of biodiversity, but data that tracked and showed trends of threatened species, even high-profile ones such as the koala, was fragmented and systems were inefficient.
“It’s simply not fit for purpose if our goal is to have effective environmental assessments and nearly all of this is invisible to the public, who are paying for this,” he said.
The scientists said the interim report from a review of Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, chaired by the former competition watchdog chair Graeme Samuel, found Australia’s system of laws and protections for endangered wildlife were part of the problem.
Among his findings, Samuel identified major deficiencies in the availability of up-to-date data on Australia’s biodiversity, with “no single national source of truth” that governments, developers and communities could rely on for information on threatened wildlife and heritage sites.
Samuel called for a new national “supply chain” of easily accessible information, alongside his other key recommendations for a framework of national environmental standards, an independent environmental regulator, and the transfer of decision-making powers under national laws to state and territory governments.
Moritz said there was concern in the scientific community that a bill currently before parliament, which will ease the transfer of approval powers to the states, was only one piece of what Samuel had recommended.
“It’s just crazy that one piece of it’s been pulled out and they’ve tried to ram it through without review and without the final Samuel report,” he said.
The bill passed the lower house after the government gagged debate in September. Multiple attempts by Labor, the Greens and crossbench senators to have it considered by a committee have been blocked by the government and One Nation.
The bill is now likely to be debated in the Senate during the November sittings of parliament not long after Samuel delivers his final report.
A spokesman for the environment minister, Sussan Ley, said Samuel had engaged with the Australian Academy of Science throughout the review.
“Prof Samuel’s interim report has already highlighted the need for more data and flagged that the issue would be subject of further focus in the final report,” he said.
“The government looks forward to considering Prof Samuel’s recommendations due to be provided at the end of this month.”