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Bohai Bay 2017: the changing tide for shorebirds


 
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Chris Hassell, long term researcher with the Global Flyway Network (GFN), looks at the current state of play for intertidal mudflats, from Roebuck Bay and Eighty Mile Beach in Western Australia to Bohai Bay in China and Saemangeum in South Korea.
The Global Flyway Network continues research in north-western Bohai Bay with hundreds of thousands of birds still flowing through that area on their northward migration to their breeding areas in the Arctic. The research at the study site is supported by Beijing Normal University, World Wildlife Fund Netherlands, Birdlife Netherlands and Spinoza Premium of Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research to Piersma (2014-2017).

 
Theunis Piersma scanning  (A Boyle)  There is now a Memorandum of Understanding that has been signed between local government, the Paulson Institute and World Wildlife Fund China to establish a nature reserve there. Signed in July, this will hopefully lead to some on-ground action and management of the intertidal mudflats. The actual destruction of the mudflats has stopped in the immediate study area and the claimed areas are being developed.

 
The GFN has researchers (including students) and local Chinese drivers bring them to the site every day for two months. They interact a lot with the people who use the mudflats (mostly shell fishermen collecting shellfish from the mudflats) and there is no conflict between parties. Indeed, the GFN has brochures written in Chinese which are all about the birds.
Just inland from the tidal mudflats the land has been turned a very large salt works which has an enormous array of ponds with water from the ocean flowing through them. When the salinity and depth of the ponds is correct they are good for foraging birds. Deeper water will see Pied avocets and Black tail godwits and shallower water will see Red-necked stints, Curlew sandpipers and Dunlins. There are also shrimp ponds within the complex. 

 
Highway construction through the salt ponds complex. (B Loos) 
In terms of the Memorandum of Understanding the salt works and the shrimp farms do not need much management, so in that sense they are a real strength. However the intertidal mudflats are still the most important habitat for the shorebirds.


 
Any nature reserve on the site would be very different from Australian ones. It would have fisherman on it, fishing nets and a commercial salt pond behind. There may well be industry to the left and right but it would not be concrete and that is the scale GFN is working at because the pressures in the Yellow Sea coastline are constant. The Yellow Sea coastline stretches over 1,000km and there are issues all along it. There are gigantic plans afoot for pretty much every scrap of mudflat, the enormity of which is astonishing and alarming. The GFN study site is 20km of this coastline and there is a six lane highway running along part of the site with more going inland. The highway does turn into an inland sandy track but there are already bridges built. Everything is waiting for an economic upturn. Below: Local fisherfolk and study driver, Xiao Liu (A Boyle)

 
South Korea closed the Saemangeum mudflats with a 33km seawall enclosing two river mouths and a huge estuary that was extremely important to many bird species, especially Great knots. First mooted for industry, then agriculture, then a motor racing circuit and then a boating lake, Saemangeum remains undeveloped after 11 years. There are no birds and many hundreds of fishermen lost their livelihoods.

 
The survival consequence for displaced birds is not just immediate but from diminished survival rates in following years. Great knots took a big hit in their population (60-80,000 disappeared for the first couple of years) but they have made a comeback, although it is hard to pinpoint exactly why, making it hard to argue with government and business about protecting mudflats.
Great knot numbers at Roebuck Bay also declined but have bounced back, although not to former levels. 

Below: The GFN team head for a roost, somewhere amongst all the development. (T Piersma)

 
Dr Danny Rogers is currently analysing data from the 14 year count by  the GFN of coastal bird species that rely on intertidal mudflats. The final report, due out at the end of the year, will document the state of bird species in the north-west Australian sites of Roebuck Bay and Eighty Mile Beach.
Then we will have a clearer picture of the changing tide for shorebirds.

 
British Marsh Award for International Ornithology won by Theunis Piersma Jury: "Scientific work of high policy relevance"
Professor Theunis Piersma, of the University of Groningen and of the NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, has been awarded the prestigious Marsh Award for International Ornithology by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). The award, which is presented annually, is given to an individual scientist whose work on the international stage has had a significant influence on British ornithology. 
    
This year, the Marsh Award for International Ornithology has been awarded to Professor Theunis Piersma in recognition of his scientific work on migration, ecology and evolution of birds and other taxa. Using Red Knots and Black-tailed Godwits as the maina study species, Theunis and his group established a framework to predict the physical attributes and behaviour of individuals based on climatic, disease and food related factors. His work as also focused on the evolutionary trade-offs involved in predation and anti-predatory behaviour across different species along the food chain. This work, in particular, holds high policy-relevance, as it informs on the risk of overexploitation of marine areas as well as our countryside. Professor Piersma was also one of the driving forces in establishing the Global Flyway Network, which focuses on long-term demographic studies of shorebirds to identify natural selection pressures on this beleaguered group of birds. Dr Daria Dadam, BTO, said, “Theunis is a very worthy recipient of the Marsh Award for International Ornithology. His work on shorebirds has revolutionised the way we think about how these birds interact with the habitats they live and feed in. Without this we would have a much poorer understanding of just how important our marine areas are for them, and how even small changes can have consequences for these global travellers.” Professor Theunis Piersma, said, “The Marsh Award is a fantastic recognition of what we have been trying to achieve as an international team, carefully deciphering the ecological factors determining their distributions and numbers, what these epic migrants have to say about the state our shared world. As deeply amazing the shorebirds are in their own right, they also have a role for us to play as the canaries in the global coal-mine.” As well as a leading academic, he is also a dedicated mentor to the younger generation of scientists. He has supervised 50 PhD students and 20 postdocs, and he and his team hosts visiting students and scientists from all over the World.

 
Chris Hassell was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Images provided by Chris Hassell. Summary text by Victor Barry November 2017

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