Our Changing World

Thursday 1 October 2015, with Alison Ballance & Veronika Meduna

On This Programme

Planning for a pandemic

Recently the community on Great Barrier Island came together to discuss a frightening prospect – what would happen if a pandemic wiped out the world’s population and left the inhabitants of the island as the sole survivors?

University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles (middle) chairs a panel discussion with virologist Lance Jennings, emergency planner John Titmus, science fiction author Karen Healey and David Johnston, at Massey University.

University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles (middle) chairs a panel discussion with virologist Lance Jennings, emergency planner John Titmus, science fiction author Karen Healey and David Johnston, from Massey University.

Photo: Richard Somerville-Ryan

This question was posed in a panel discussion called No Barriers – Small Island, Big Ideas – Exploring Pandemics, hosted by the Great Barrier Island Branch of Awana Rural Women. The scenario was simple but chilling; a novel Type A influenza virus, called Mortenza, develops in a small village on the other side of the world and quickly spreads across the globe, killing everyone it infects. Soon, the 900 people on the island are the only ones left alive.

On the panel was Lance Jennings, a clinical virologist at Canterbury District Health Board and the director of New Zealand’s National Measles Laboratory for the World Health Organisation: WHO. He says that a pandemic like Mortenza is a realistic prospect.

There is always the possibility that a novel virus… could evolve at any time.
Lance Jennings, Canterbury District Health Board

Lance Jennings

Lance Jennings

Photo: Richard Somerville-Ryan.

Lance Jennings points to the ability of the influenza virus to evolve across the species barrier, allowing it to be transmitted from its animal host to humans, as one reason for concern. An example is the avian influenza H7N9 virus in southern China, which causes serious respiratory illness in humans and kills approximately 20 per cent of those it infects. At present, transmission between people is rare but as the virus evolves, this could change.

One key message from Lance and the rest of the panel is pandemic preparedness; having a plan in place to deal with an outbreak. New Zealand has the National Health Emergency Plan  which includes the New Zealand Influenza Pandemic Plan: A Framework for Action. Topics range from planning for individual and community recovery in an emergency event to disability issues and ethical values in a pandemic situation. 

Should an outbreak occur, the Ministry of Health will take the lead role in a response that will involve the whole of Government. But the Emergency Plan is specifically designed to devolve downward so all local bodies and District Health Boards will be able to continue to implement it if central government collapses. And like a virus, the plan frequently adapts to changing circumstances.

The National Plan was used in 2003 to respond to SARS and then subsequently for the H5N1 avian flu outbreak. It’s an evolutionary document.

New Zealand’s ethnically diverse population means that in the event of a pandemic there will likely be a range of responses to sickness, death and the disposal of bodies. Some may involve close and intimate contact with the infected, allowing the further transmission of the virus and tragically, potentially helping it to kill entire family groups. But there are plans to deal with this, too. Ongoing dialogue with community leaders educates all parties to potential risks, while more pragmatically, consultation with funeral directors hopefully means that an adequate supply of body bags will be available and the necessary protocols will be in place to deal with the dead.

A second key to combating a killer virus is the continuing emphasis on the importance of annual flu vaccinations and promoting uptake among those most vulnerable. According to Lance Jennings this not only improves the health of those individuals but also builds capacity to effectively distribute vaccines and improves communications lines within both the community and the media that could prove to be critical in a pandemic.

But unlike your favourite disaster movie, there is no possibility of a super vaccine being quickly developed. Current technology requires first a specific virus to respond to. Control reagents are then developed and should they prove to be successful, it may then be possible to manufacture the vaccine in large amounts. Unfortunately, the likely time frame for this is at least four to six months - too slow for a swift and unusually deadly virus like Mortenza. 

But although a Mortenza-like illness, which kills everyone it infects, is possible, is it really likely to occur?

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 killed between 20-40 million people or roughly 3 per cent of the population. The Great Plague in Europe and Central Asia possibly accounted for around a third of the world's population. But while we have yet to see anything as deadly as Mortenza, Lance Jennings says conditions around the planet mean that a virus like this has to be planned for. He cites contributory factors like increasing population growth and the dense concentration of people in large cities as well as the vast increase in both chicken and pig production. In short, a perfect storm scenario for the creation of the kind of deadly diseases.

Viruses are getting agitated. We’re starting to see lots of novel Influenza A viruses emerging … there are things going on that we don’t understand at this point in time … I think it is inevitable that we will certainly have more emergence of these viruses and the chances for one devastating virus occurring must be in our planning.

In the meantime, planning, preparation and public discussion are the best forms of prevention. And if a pandemic does occur, trying to take refuge on Great Barrier Island may not be the best plan. It is highly unlikely that the virus would not reach the island. And almost everyone there owns a gun.

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Moving animals for conservation

By Alison Ballance

North Island bush robin photographed at Zealandia sanctuary

Bush robins are one of the most commonly translocated bird species in New Zealand, although not all reintroductions succeed.

Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

“There are really two reasons for moving animals around. One is because you’re concerned about the species itself, as it’s got down to very low numbers or just one population. The other is for ecological restoration reasons, for example a sanctuary that you want to restore to the way it was and a big part of that is bringing back the species.”
Doug Armstrong, reintroduction biologist, Massey University

From tuatara to giant weta and robins, species are on the move around New Zealand, and they have been since the early 1960s, when the late Don Merton began moving saddlebacks between islands.

This was a technique that the early conservationist Richard Henry pioneered in Fiordland in the late 1890s, when he moved hundreds of kakapo and kiwi to Resolution Island in an ultimately doomed attempt to save them from the ravages of introduced stoats on mainland New Zealand.

Advances in Reintroduction Biology of Australian and New Zealand Fauna is a recent publication that reviews what’s been happening both here and in Australia. While lots of this information exists in scientific papers, the book’s authors, including Massey University’s  Doug Armstrong and Kate Richardson, wanted to make it available in one easy-to-access volume. The book’s chapters are written by different people, and include case studies and useful advice.

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Offsetting biodiversity losses

The way we are managing development is likely locking in decline of biodiversity at the moment.
Marie Brown, EDS

Biodiversity continues to decline in New Zealand and worldwide. One of the methods governments and companies use to mitigate impacts from development projects is the offsetting of biodiversity losses in one area with biodiversity gains in another, but the Environmental Defence Society is calling for stronger national policies to prevent ongoing decline.

Marie Brown

Marie Brown

Photo: Marie Brown

EDS policy analyst Marie Brown says the purpose of biodiversity offsets is to address damage to ecosystems in a development context, with the overall aim of no net losses of biological diversity.

“What that amounts to in practice is that a developer agrees to a compensation kind of conservation programme and the nature and scale of that would be broadly equivalent to what’s been lost in the development process.”

Trade-offs are regularly negotiated as part of the resource consent application process under the Resource Management Act, but biodiversity offsets differ in that they aim for no net loss, and ideally even net gain.

Payment can be used as part of the biodiversity offset process, but can be “quite risky because what you’re doing is you’re converting natural capital, which you are going to lose anyway, into financial capital, and the key thing is to make sure it gets converted back again, not just to natural capital but to something that is similar in value”.

Marie Brown is a co-author of the recent book Vanishing Nature, and here she discusses the challenges in valuing nature.

Vanishing Nature ( 20 min 27 sec )

Sometimes, she says, a financial offset can lead to a better outcome. “If the proponent of the development is not keen, willing or able to engage with a conservation project, an equivalent project can be costed and another organisation or agency identified to carry it out. Then it becomes a cheque writing exercise. However, the gains at the end are more secure, so it’s not always a bad idea.”

However, in some instances she says it can become “cash for damage”.

It’s simply factored in as a compliance cost within the development and people forget about the point of offsets being the very final option of the mitigation hierarchy where avoidance is always your best bet.

In New Zealand, biodiversity offsets are included in several regional policy statements and plans, but are not mandatory, and the EDS is calling for statutory guidance and more clarity on parameters that proponents of development projects have to meet.

Marie Brown says there are several examples of companies that take their responsibilities seriously but that does not mean certain success, “not because of lack of effort but because ecological timelines are very different to human timelines”.

“Overall an enhanced policy context will be a really useful operating minimum for the good guys and it will give the bad guys a goal, and a really crucial goal.”

Compliance and enforcement are also important issues. During her PhD research, Marie Brown found that less than half of the ecological conditions in resource consents were met. “A lot of energy goes into the front part of the process … but as soon as the first sod is turned, there’s an awful lot fewer people watching, and that means that the loss to nature is sometimes silent”.

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Too much salt

Small piles of table salt

The sodium in salt is responsible for increasing blood pressure and too much sodium can contribute to cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes

Photo: CC BY 2.0 Dubravko Sorić

By Alison Ballance

Since recording this interview about sodium in our diet I’ve become obsessed with reading food labels – and we’ll get back to those labels later. Sodium is a key ingredient in salt, and I’ve discovered, for instance, that 2 slices of bread contain almost one sixth of your daily recommended intake of sodium, while a single serving of baked beans contains nearly half.

It’s abundantly clear that we live in a high salt world – so how feasible is it to have a low sodium diet?

It’s exactly that question that master’s student Catherine Lofthouse at the University of Otago is trying to answer with a group of keen volunteers.

“We’re investigating what are the barriers and supports for people trying to lower their sodium intake and follow a low sodium diet,” says Catherine. “We’re also interested in finding out if someone goes on a low sodium diet, do they also find themselves making other dietary changes, for instance do they end up consuming more sugary or fatty products.”

Processed foods make up a significant proportion of modern diets, and public health physician Rachael McLean says that a lot of the sodium we eat is contained in these foods. “So we anticipate that it’s actually quite hard to lower your sodium intake if you eat like normal New Zealanders do” she says.

The World Health Organisation recommends that a healthy adult eats no more than 2 grams (or 2000 mg) of sodium a day; this is as much sodium as you get in 5 grams, or a teaspoon, of salt. Children should consume much less than this. The bad news is that the average New Zealander eats about 3.5 grams of sodium a day, which is 9 grams of salt – or about one and a half to two times what we should be eating each day.

Too much sodium is a health issue because it is strongly implicated in raising blood pressure, which leads to cardiovascular issues such as stroke and heart attack.

“The link between sodium and blood pressure is very, very strong” says Rachael.

She says there is also an association between high sodium intake and abnormal lining of blood vessels, while high sodium intake can also lead to kidney disease, and may possibly lead to osteoporosis as excreting lots of sodium also means excreting calcium.

So why the high levels of salt in processed foods? Salt takes water with it into products, so it makes foods seem juicier and makes them heavier. And people enjoy eating salty food.

Catherine’s study involves ten volunteers, such as Tanya Lyders. Tanya joined the study because her husband had had a stroke, and she is interested in eating more healthily. Although she thought they ate quite a healthy diet already she confesses that they have a busy lifestyle and ate quite a few processed foods as well as the occasional takeaway meal.

After an initial assessment Catherine provides the study volunteers with nutrition education and a useful handbook that she has developed. As well as weekly support meetings she supplies low sodium recipes that she has developed, provides web links to further low sodium recipes, recommends the use of Low Salt which contains two thirds less sodium, gives advice on reading food labels, suggests that people use a free phone app called Food Switch to help interpret food labels and find healthier alternatives, and recommends using other seasonings such as lemon juice, herbs and pepper to make up for the loss of salt. Tanya reports that she finds the Healthy Food Guide very useful.

Rachael says a useful trick is to simply not add salt during cooking, but leave people to add salt at the table, as this results in less salt being used.

Tanya says her biggest challenge has been getting her husband – who does much of the cooking in the household – on board.

“It’s also been a challenge to find low sodium alternatives – there is just so much sodium in food.”

She says they’ve gone back to cooking more unprocessed foods, and she has become a diligent reader of food labels as the amount of sodium can vary markedly between products.

Getting used to the change in taste has been “a huge issue” for both Tanya and her husband, as it takes 8-10 weeks for taste buds to readjust to lower sodium levels, but she reports that she is now appreciating the flavour of unsalted food.

Catherine, Rachael and Tanya all commented on the difficulty of reading food labels, which are printed in very small type. Tanya observed that some labels report sodium in grams while others use milligrams, which added to the difficulty.

“Catherine had provided me with a guide as to what is low, medium and high sodium,” says Tanya, “so I’m always trying to keep it below about 300 mg. But you have to add up all the component parts of the meal, so if you can manage to make it less than 500 mg of sodium you’re doing quite well.”

Rachael observes that a simple traffic light scheme would be much more user friendly, but adds we are unlikely to see such a scheme adopted any time soon.

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Kermadec region becomes an open ocean sanctuary

By Alison Ballance

“The Kermadec area is a natural highway and connector between tropical and temperate waters and that really is what makes it so special.”
Bronwen Golder, Pew Global Ocean Legacy - Kermadecs

Galapagos Shark. Photo Malcolm Francis NIWA

Spotted Black Grouper. Photo Malcolm Francis NIWA

Small Chimneys. Photo Malcolm Clark NIWA

Hawksbill Turtle. Photo Malcolm Francis NIWA

Soft Coral. Photo Malcolm Francis NIWA

Spotted Black Grouper. Photo Malcolm Francis NIWA

Stone Crab. Photo Malcolm Clark NIWA

Humpback whale. Photo Malcolm Francis

Crinoids. Photo Malcolm Clark NIWA

Kingfish. Malcolm Francis NIWA

Kermadec deep water species. Photo Malcolm Clark NIWA

Black smoker vent. Photo Cornel de Ronde GNS Science

Kermadec Petrel. Photo Brook Whylie

Black smoker vent. Photo Malcolm Clarke NIWA

Kermadec Trench. Tim Shank, Jack Cook, and E. Paul Oberlander © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Corals. Photo Malcolm Clark NIWA

L'Esperance Rock Kermadecs. Photo A. Ballance

Urchin. Photo Malcolm Clark NIWA

Map of Kermadec Marine Sanctuary and other marine protected areas in the Pacific. Ministry for the Environment

Diver and blue maomao at Kermadecs. Photo Malcolm Francis NIWA

Anemone. Photo Malcolm Clark NIWA

Marine photos from the Kermadecs

A 620,000 square kilometre area of ocean around the subtropical Kermadec Islands has just been declared an ocean sanctuary. When it comes into effect in 2016 the new marine protected area will become the first in New Zealand to go beyond our 12 nautical mile territorial waters out to the 200 nautical mile boundary of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It will be New Zealand’s largest marine reserve. Fishing, prospecting and mining will be banned in this no-take marine reserve. It brings the total number of marine reserves in New Zealand to 44.

Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, New Zealand committed to having 10 per cent of its coastal and marine areas conserved by 2020. New Zealand currently has 9.7 per cent of its territorial sea fully protected, but no full protection in our EEZ; the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary means 15 per cent of New Zealand’s ocean environment will be fully protected.

The announcement, made by Prime Minister John Key at the United Nations in New York earlier this week, follows more than five years of lobbying by a consortium of conservation organisations, spearheaded by Pew Charitable Trust’s Global Ocean Legacy project. The Global Ocean Legacy project has been working around the world for a number of years to encourage governments to ‘establish the world’s first generation of great marine parks by securing the designation of large, fully protected reserves’.

The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, pictured along with other large marine protected areas in the Pacific.

The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, pictured along with other large marine protected areas in the Pacific.

Photo: Ministry for the Environment

The Kermadec ocean sanctuary adds to the existing Kermadec marine reserve, which was established in 1990 and includes 7500 square kilometres of territorial sea around the five islands: Raoul, Macauley, Cheeseman, Curtis and L’Esperance.

Under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Protected Areas classification system the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary will have the highest level of protection: category I – strict nature reserve/wilderness area.

The Kermadec area is one of the world’s most pristine ocean areas. It includes the world’s longest chain of underwater volcanoes and the world’s second deepest ocean trench at over 10 kilometres – deeper than Mount Everest is tall. Its waters are also home to six million seabirds of 39 different species, over 150 species of fish, 35 species of whales and dolphins, three species of sea turtles – all endangered – and many other marine species like corals, shellfish and crabs unique to this area. The region also provides an important migration path for species crossing the Pacific, such as humpback whales and great white sharks.

Bronwen Golder has been leading the Global Ocean Legacy - Kermadec project. “You see subtropical and temperate waters coming together here, and you get a mix of biodiversity from those different ocean realms,” says Bronwen.

Earlier this year Our Changing World's Veronika Meduna spoke with Pew's Matt Rand about global ocean protection.

Global Ocean Legacy ( 10 min 47 sec )

Humpback whale - mother and calf

Kermadec waters are an important stop-over for humpback whales, especially mother's with young calves, as they migrate from breeding grounds in the tropical Pacific to summer feeding grounds near Antarctica.

Photo: Malcolm Francis/ NIWA

Our Changing World and the Kermadecs

We have had a long standing interest in the Kermadec Islands and surrounding ocean. In 2011 Alison Ballance took part in Auckland Museum’s Kermadec Biodiscovery Expedition. You can find links to the stories that resulted from that expedition, along with other stories, below.

Fish collecting in rockpools

Raoul Island Vegetation

Insect Collecting on Raoul Island

Kermadec Volcanic Arc

Weeds and Vegetation Plots on Raoul Island

Macauley, Cheeseman and L'Esperance Islands

Kermadec Marine Invertebrates

Fish science at the Kermadec Islands

Kermadec Pumice Mystery 2012

Kermadec Whales and Dolphins 2012

Supergiant Amphipods from the Kermadec Trench 2012

Deep-sea snailfish from the Kermadec Trench 2012

An expedition to tag migrating humpback whales is currently at the Kermadecs. Whales and calves migrating south from breeding grounds in the tropics pass Raoul Island at this time of year, but team leader Rochelle Constantine from the University of Auckland says we don’t know which population these whales are part of, where they have been in the tropics, and where in Antarctic waters they are heading to feed.

Ocean sanctuaries around the world

The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary joins a growing number of large open ocean marine protected areas. These marine protected areas range from fully protected marine reserves through to multi-use parks that allow various kinds of fishing.

New Caledonia’s Natural Park of the Coral Sea is a multi-use marine park that covers 1.3 million square kilometres in the Pacific, encompassing the entire EEZ of New Caledonia..

Australia’s Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve was announced in 2012 and covers 989,842 square kilometres. Just over half will be zoned as a no-take Marine National Park.

The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is managed by the United States. It lies in the Central Pacific Ocean and covers seven different areas. The monument includes territorial waters around Howland Island, Baker Island, Jarvis Island, Palmyra Atoll, Kingman Reef, and the entire EEZ of Wake and Johnston Atolls. It covers an area of 1.27 million square kilometres. There is some provision for limited customary fishing

The United States’ Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument around the northwestern Hawaiian islands covers 362,073 square kilometres.

In 2010 the Chagos Archipelago, a UK Overseas Territory in the central Indian Ocean, was designated as a no-take marine reserve of more than 640,000 square kilometres.

In 2012 a one million square kilometre Marine Protected Area was declared around the UK Overseas Territory of South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands, in the southern Atlantic Ocean; it includes over 20,000 square kilometres of no-fishing zones.

In 2014, the government of Palau announced at the United Nations that it intends to create a national marine sanctuary would make Palau the first country to declare the waters of its entire exclusive economic zone a marine protected area. The sanctuary will include a fully protected ‘no take’ zone of 500,000 square kilometres, which would create one of the largest fully protected marine reserves in the world.

In March 2015 the British Government announced its intention to create a marine reserve around the Pacific Ocean islands of Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno islands. This marine reserve will cover 834,334 square kilometres and be the world's largest fully protected marine reserve.

The community on Easter Island, which is part of Chile, is also in discussion about creating a 720,000 square kilometre marine park around the island.

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