South China Morning Post: story on threatened waterbirds

Dr. Nial Moores, Birds Korea, May 5th

On May 5th the South China Morning Post published a generally excellent article with the optimistic title ” How birdwatchers helped save icon of Hong Kong’s Mai Po marshes, the black-faced spoonbill.”

The article was written by stalwart bird conservationist Dr Martin Williams, who is perhaps best known for his plucking apart some of the fanciful myths of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (or Poultry Flu as it is better-described).  The article has already been described by BirdLife’s Simba Chan as “too good to be missed”, and as you will see, it helps pull together narratives on two  of the region’s most iconic and threatened bird species (Black-faced Spoonbill and Spoon-billed Sandpiper); it accurately describes some of the impacts of the Saemangeum reclamation; and it offers a voice of hope in the closing comments of the wonderful Ms Vivian Fu (who was responsible for the excellent spoonie animation and postcard exchanges that involved school kids from all along the Flyway including from Busan, Gimhae and Incheon).

It really is an excellent article – but I hope that it is okay for me to state clearly here that I was misquoted in it.

The published article quotes me as stating, “I believe the Saemangeum reclamation was the major driver in the decline of the spoon-billed sandpiper”.

What I actually wrote in an email to the author on March 2nd was:

i believe that Saemangeum reclamation was a major factor in the decline of Spoon-billed Sandpiper. I think reclamation has been the major driver, with declines then exacerbated by trapping etc.

This is a very important distinction.  Almost all bird species are under a range of threats. In the case of many of the shorebird species on this Flyway they are suffering from the combined impacts of reclamation and habitat degradation of hinterland areas (and in some cases from agricultural intensification); hunting and trapping; pollution; and climate change.

There is no doubt that reclamation kills shorebirds and there is no doubt that the Saemangeum reclamation has resulted in massive declines in some species of shorebirds (something which will become even more apparent with the publication of a special volume of the Journal Emu in the next month or so). There is no doubt too in my mind that estuarine dykes and reclamation of other key sites (including in the Nakdong Estuary and in Japan and China) has contributed greatly to the rapid rate of decline in Spoon-billed Sandpiper and many other shorebird species.

But reclamation is not the only problem for these species.

There can be no doubt too that hunting and kilometers of mist-nets and traps also kills an unsutainably large number of some shorebird species.  And now, and into the future, even human-induced climate change is likely to result in higher sea-levels (meaning a loss of tidal-flat area and time for foraging); in an increase in mismatch in migration timing and nesting opportunities; in changes in vegetation communities in breeding areas; in higher numbers of human communities and associated nest-predators in once remote Arctic regions; and in increased storm activity that could disrupt birds during migration.  Acid rain too – in addition to other pollutants – can also lead to reduced natural productivity of wetlands in breeding areas and also thinning of shellfish shells – leading to reduced health of shellfish here in the Yellow Sea that might otherwise be consumed by species like Great Knot.

There are multiple threats and multiple drivers of decline and in one way or another they all work in combination.

And recognising this makes it a little easier to understand that many of the threats that are presently faced by shorebirds and other bird species are also very bad news for humans too. The wetlands that Black-faced Spoonbills and Spoon-billed Sandpiper depend on are some of the most naturally productive places on the planet, and they provide a range of natural services from carbon storage to defence from storm surges.  In many cases they are also great places for education and ecotourism.  Reclamation of such places kills shorebirds; it also kills shellfish and destroys fisheries and leads to a loss of other services. Reclamation has multiple costs – more than just the cost of constructing sea-walls – including release of methane and loss of carbon storage, contributing to an increase in greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, helping to drive climate change.  And of course, none of us people will really benefit from a rapidly changing climate either.

So respectfully, my main points remain: reclamation is a major driver of shorebird decline and has multiple costs. And unless there is a fundamental shift in human value systems and the way we all choose to do business and to live our lives, then many of these cherished species – including the Black-faced Spoonbill and Spoon-billed Sandpiper – will likely become extinct.  Their extinction is not inevitable, however.  There are many excellent people already doing excellent work for these species. And these species’ conservation and our own futures will depend first and foremost on our accepting that we all need to change:  we need to stop seeing things too simply; we need to use science to understand the chains of cause and effect; and most of all we need to take much greater responsibility for our own actions so that together we can all lessen our impacts on our one and only planet.  I hope we can all agree!

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