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The Saemangeum Saga

What Knot to do - leaving migratory birds high and dry
Freelance shorebird biologist, Dr Danny Rogers and renowned Australian photographer, Dr Charles Page, outline the dramatic effects of human intervention on migratory bird populations.
Here was a premier site that did NOT have Ramsar status, despite strong lobbying from many organisations and even countries.
Saemangeum tidal flats, 2005.  The seven metre tidal range meant that each low tide, water receded many kilometres.   The mud, cleansed by each tide is alive with invertebrates, and firm enough for the fisher people to drive on in tractors.
Photo by Charles Page  

Play  Saemangeum saga part I   saemangeumpartI.mp3  
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Play  Saemangeum saga part II   saemangeumpartII.mp3  
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Roebuck Bay in Western Australia is home to many thousands of migratory shorebirds which reside on the vast tidal flats during their nonbreeding season. It is the premier location for Great Knots, large Sandpipers that every year make the long flights between the Siberian Arctic (where it breeds) to Australia. To be in good mudflats of the Yellow Sea and especially at the richest site - Saemangeum, a huge tidal flat system on the west coast of South Korea. This system is fed by river discharges from China and was a vital feeding ground for countless thousands of shorebirds. It also was so rich in shellfish that it could support 25,000 people who made a living harvesting and selling shellfish.

Great Knots in flight at Saemangeum
Photo by Ju Yung-Ki

Some decades ago, South Korea decided to reclaim the tidal flats and to develop the land for rice farming.
This was a historical decision made at a time when South Korea was economically poor and not self sufficient in food production.

However, over time, South Korea has transformed itself into one of the tiger economies and reclamation for food production was no longer economically viable or required. The reclamation was to continue but for very different outcomes including industrial expansion, high rise apartments and - even a Formula I racing track.

This change in proposed use of the land was unlawful and was bitterly but unsuccessfully contested by environmentalists in the High Court of South Korea. The project relied on the building of the longest sea walls in the world. The 33 kilometres of sea wall were completed in 2006. Sluice gates were installed in the sea walls in order to keep the salt water at bay.

Aerial shot from NASA of the incomplete wall

Dr Rogers has been part of several international field surveys that are monitoring the effects of this reclamation on migratory shorebird populations. Dr Page, who also has visited Saemangeum annually since 2005, has provided a startling photographic record of the changing sea and landscape.


The completion of the sea walls in 2006 meant that the tide range dropped from seven metres to five metres and, when the sluice gates were closed, eventually to one metre. This caused thousands of shellfish to lie on the dry surface and die - easy prey for the shorebirds that had a veritable (but temporary) feast.
Danny rescuing an illegally captured Terek Sandpiper from a fish trap. Photo by Ju Yung-Ki.

The survey has now been repeated in 2007 with alarming results. The tidal range is now 20 centimetres and bivalves have virtually disappeared from the flats. Locked inside the sea wall, on beds of dry mud, are the abandoned fishing boats of the former residents. Because the Greta Knot specialised in feeding of shellfish its population was hit hard, falling from 88,000 to 3,500. The quiet that surrounds the area is a stark reminder of the low numbers of migratory birds.

Fewer birds feeding on the mudflats but more dead birds.  Photo by Charles Page.    

Whilst Knot numbers in the estuaries to the north and south rose this year, it was not enough to compensate for the lack of feeding grounds at Saemangeum. More alarming, however, has been changes in bird behaviour, with Dr Rodgers observing fights over food for the first time by what are normally very sociable flock feeding species.

To date, some 77,000 birds remain unaccounted for and grave fears are held for bird numbers when they next arrive in Roebuck Bay in Spring. The land at Saemangeum is now being promised for a mix of industrial and residential purposes. The local population received some compensated for the demise of their fishing industry but whole villages have been abandoned as people seek work elsewhere.
Photo by Charles Page 


It is a very sad case of not having Knots. 
                      Text: V.B.

Great Knot photographed by Ken Gosbell.

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