WHMSI: Being Good Neighbors to Support Migratory Animals

By: Mark J. Spalding, President

I had the great good fortune to spend the early part of this week at a special meeting with our partners at the international division of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  The meeting, which was cohosted by the Organization of American States, celebrated efforts to protect the migratory species of the western hemisphere.  Gathered together were some twenty people representing 6 countries, 4 NGOs, 2 US Cabinet Departments, and the secretariats of 3 international conventions.  We are all members of the steering committee of WHMSI, the Western Hemisphere Migratory Species Initiative.  We were elected by our peers to help guide the development of the Initiative and maintain communication with stakeholders between conferences. 

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Group shot of some WHMSI participants

All of the countries in the Western Hemisphere share a common biological, cultural and economic heritage — via our migratory birds, whales, bats, sea turtles, and butterflies.  WHMSI was born in 2003 to promote cooperation around the protection of these many species that move without regard to political boundaries on geographic routes and temporal patterns that are centuries in the making.  Collaborative protection requires that nations recognize the transboundary species and share local knowledge about the habitat needs and behaviors of species in transit.  Throughout the two-day meeting, we heard about in-hemisphere efforts from representatives from Paraguay, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, and St. Lucia, as well as the CITES Secretariat, Convention on Migratory Species, USA, American Bird Conservancy, The Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles, and the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds.

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From the Arctic to Antarctica, fish, birds, mammals, sea turtles, cetaceans, bats, insects and other migratory species provide ecological and economic services shared by the countries and people of the Western Hemisphere. They are sources of food, livelihood and recreation, and have important scientific, economic, cultural, aesthetic and spiritual value. Despite these benefits, many migratory wildlife species are increasingly threatened by uncoordinated national level management, habitat degradation and loss, invasive alien species, pollution, over hunting and fishing, by-catch, unsustainable aquaculture practices and illegal harvesting and trafficking.

For this steering committee meeting, we spent a lot of our time working on a set of principles and related actions for conservation migratory birds, which are among the species of particular interest in our hemisphere.  Hundreds of species migrate at various times of the year.  These migrations serve as seasonal source of potential tourism dollars and a management challenge, given that the species are not resident and it can be hard to convince communities of their value, or coordinate the protection of the right sorts of habitat.

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Batagur Hatchling

In addition there are issues of the impact of unfettered development and trade in species for food or other purposes.  For example, I was surprised to learn that turtles—of all kinds—are at the top endangered vertebrate species lists across the hemisphere.  The previous demand to supply pet stores has been supplanted by a demand for freshwater turtles as a delicacy for human consumption—leading to population crashes so dire that emergency measures to protect turtles are being proposed by the U.S. with the support of China at the next meeting of the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in March.  Fortunately, the demand can largely be met by strict adherence to purchase of farmed turtles and wild populations can be given a chance at recovery with sufficient habitat protection and elimination of harvest.

For those of us in marine conservation, our interest is naturally focused on the needs of sea animals—the birds, sea turtles, fish, and marine mammals—that migrate north and south each year.  Bluefin tuna migrate from the Gulf of Mexico where they breed and up to Canada as part of their life cycle.  Groupers spawn in aggregations off of the coast of Belize and disperse to other areas. Each year, thousands of turtles make their way home to nesting beaches along the Caribbean, Atlantic, and Pacific Coasts to lay their eggs, and about 8 weeks later their hatchlings do the same.

Laguna San Ignacio Gray Whale

Gray Whale

The grey whales that winter in Baja to breed and bear their young spend their summers as far north as Alaska, migrating along the California coast.   Blue whales migrate to feed in the waters of Chile (in a sanctuary The Ocean Foundation was proud to help establish), up to Mexico and beyond.  But, we still know little about the mating behavior or breeding grounds of this largest animal on Earth.

After WHMSI 4 meeting in Miami, which took place in December 2010, we developed a survey to determine the most pressing issues in the marine sector, which in turn allowed us to write an RFP for proposals for a small grants program to work on those priorities.  The results of the Survey indicated the following as migratory species categories and habitats of greatest concern:

  1. Small Marine Mammals
  2. Sharks and Rays
  3. Large Marine Mammals
  4. Coral Reefs and Mangroves
  5. Beaches (including nesting beaches)
    [NB: sea turtles were ranked highest, but were covered under other funding]

Thus, at this week’s meeting we discussed, and selected for grant funding 5 of 37 excellent proposals focused on capacity building to better address these priorities by significantly enhancing their conservation.

The tools at our collective disposal include:

  1. Establishing protected areas within national boundaries, especially those that are needed for breeding and nursery issues
  2. Taking advantage of RAMSAR, CITES, World Heritage, and other protective international conventions and designations to support collaboration and enforcement
  3. Sharing scientific data, especially about the potential of serious shifts in migratory patterns due to climate change.
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A monarch butterfly gathering nectar from a swamp milkweed flower. (Credit: iStockphoto/Willie Manalo)

Why climate change?  Migratory species are victims of the most visible present effects of our changing climate.  Scientists believe that certain migratory cycles are triggered as much by the length of day as they are by temperature.  This can lead to serious problems for some species.  For example, early spring thaw up north can mean earlier blooming of key supportive plants and thus butterflies arriving at the “regular” time from the south have nothing to eat, and perhaps, their hatching eggs will not either.  Early spring thaw can mean that spring flooding affects the food available in coastal marshes along migratory bird routes.  Unseasonable storms—e.g. tornados well before the “normal” tornado season—can blow birds far from familiar routes or ground them in unsafe territory.  Even the heat generated by highly dense urban areas can change the rainfall patterns thousands of miles away and affect the availability of both food and habitat for migrating species.  For migratory marine animals, changes in ocean chemistry, temperature, and depth can affect everything from navigational signals, to food supply (e.g. shifting fish habitat patterns), to resilience to adverse events.  In turn, as these animals adapt, ecotourism-based activities may have to shift as well—in order to maintain the economic basis for species protection.

I made the mistake of leaving the room for a few minutes on the last morning of meeting and thus, have been named chair of the Marine Committee for WHMSI, as which I am very honored to serve, of course.   Over the next year, we hope to develop principles and action priorities similar to those presented by the folks working on migratory birds.  Some of these will no doubt include learning more about the ways all of us can support the diverse and colorful array of migratory species that depend as much on the goodwill of our nation neighbors to the north and south as our own goodwill and commitment to their conservation.

In the end, current threats to migratory wildlife can only be effectively addressed if the key stakeholders interested in their survival can work together as a strategic alliance, sharing information, experiences, problems, and solutions.  For our part, WHMSI seeks to:

  1. Build country capacity to conserve and manage migratory wildlife
  2. Improve hemispheric communication on conservation issues of common interest
  3. Strengthen the exchange of information needed for informed decision making
  4. Provide a forum in which emerging issues can be identified and addressed
Migrating cranes gather

Migrating cranes (AP Photo/MTI,Zsolt Czegledi)

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