15 Dec 2015

Warning of grave threat to species collections

9:21 pm on 15 December 2015

The Royal Society is warning collections of species in the country's museums and institutions could close because of funding cuts while staff numbers are dwindling.

Wendy Nelson.

Wendy Nelson. Photo: Supplied

It said the cuts threatened the safety of New Zealand's biodiversity, research, the discovery of new species and their documentation.

The society published a report today National Taxonomic Collections in New Zealand that called for a national policy and framework to manage the country's collections and help them grow.

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Photo: Supplied

The panel that compiled the report said there needed to be a single point of responsibility within government, rather than different departments providing piecemeal funding alongside local authorities that supported museums' collections.

Panel chair Wendy Nelson, who works at both the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) and the University of Auckland, said having strong biological collections was vital to fight pests, diseases and weeds that cost the country $2.45 billion a year.

However Dr Nelson said a decline in funding during the past 20 years, and fewer taxonomists, was threatening the collections of 12 million species held in 20 institutions.

"And that's critically important for us to be delivering nationally and internationally on our obligations in legislative requirements, it's important for our human health and management of resources."

Ilse Breitwieser is a botanist and plant taxonomist at Landcare Research, which has had funding frozen since 2008, and has cut 12 staff.

Dr Breitwieser said the loss of staff meant that if there was a biosecurity threat there might not be the expertise to deal with it, leading to disastrous results.

Ilse Breitwieser

Ilse Breitwieser Photo: RNZ / Laura Bootham

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) chief science advisor Jim Metson acknowledged the report's argument for further work to establish a national approach.

"The report highlights some of the complexities around the curation of these collections, many of which are of national and international significance, and the current dispersed and at times fragmented nature of these collections.

"It highlights that there is further work to do to establish a national approach to both understanding how these collections are best supported to address both national interests and international obligations," he said in a statement.

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