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Letter to Minister of Conservation

2006 | regarding the plight of native snail Powelliphanta augustus


To the Minister of Conservation

The Royal Society of New Zealand is an independent, national academy of sciences, instituted under an Act of Parliament to advance and promote science and technology, including provision of expert advice on matters before government. The Biodiversity Committee is an expert committee under the aegis of the RSNZ. The following submission regarding the decision on the fate of the native snail, Powelliphanta augustus, is sent on behalf of the members of the Biodiversity Committee named below. It has not been ratified by the RSNZ Council and, as such, is not purported to be the view of the entire RSNZ†.

We wish to impress upon you the importance of preserving our native snail, Powelliphanta augustus, from extinction.

  • The evidence that this population of snails has not expanded its territory, and that its habitat is so restricted, both suggest the necessity to protect the original habitat. If Solid Energy were allowed to attempt to re-establish a population in a different location, how is it proposed that the success of the move be measured? How likely is it for a top order carnivore to successfully survive immediately on re-release to a new habitat into which it has not spread to date? These scientific questions need to be answered before the destruction of the original habitat. If the lack of historical territory expansion were due only to geographical barriers, (i.e. the food sources and other ecological factors at the new site are balanced in favour of the snail) then re-establishment of the population may be feasible, but this needs to be determined first, via scientific trial.
  • Having ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity and having legislative devices such as the Wildlife Act and others, means that, as Minister of Conservation, you have both the motivation and means to protect the snail species. This means protecting the original habitat at least until population establishment elsewhere is determined.
  • Protection of unique New Zealand wildlife is important to “New Zealand Identity”. It is something that the Prime Minister has noted – that New Zealanders value our wildlife and natural habitats.
  • In a previous submission to the Department of Conservation*, the RSNZ suggested that “where there is a lack of scientific data, management should adopt a cautious approach while gathering the necessary data”. If the information is unclear, then precautionary principles should be implemented, i.e. protection of the species until more is known.
  • A full analysis of all the available data should be made, including whether the species has actually been looked for in other habitats, before making any final decision.

From the point of view of biodiversity, we would recommend that you take the ideal, courageous and responsible decision that only the Minister of Conservation can make, i.e. to protect this unique species, by preventing the relocation of the snails and stopping the destruction of their original habitat. However, if a compromise is needed, (due to consent for Solid Energy to mine the coal seam) then we recommend establishing a successful new population before destruction of the original habitat, with the proviso that scientific measurement of successful population establishment should be made over an appropriate length of time considering the life cycle of the snail before any original habitat destruction. This may result in delaying coal mining on the Stockton Mine seam for a few years.

The Biodiversity Committee members endorsing this response are:

  • Dr Dennis Gordon (Chair),Principal Scientist, NIWA
  • Mr John Charles, Entomologist, HortResearch
  • Prof. Richard A Benton, Te Matahauariki Institute, University of Waikato
  • Dr Murray J. Parsons, Botanical Consultant
  • Dr Murray A. Potter, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Massey University
  • Dr Kathleen Logan, Executive staff, RSNZ

(Other members of the committee are not making comment because they are either overseas or employed by agencies with direct involvement with this decision.)

† Guidelines on expert advice from the Royal Society

* Submission on Timberlands West Coast beech management proposals by the Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand, in two parts.