A landmark UN report paints a grim picture of the state of migratory wild animals worldwide, including those that travel through New Zealand, like sharks, whales, albatross, and sea turtles.
The report was launched at the meeting for the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), a UN biodiversity treaty.
Nearly half of species listed under the convention are in decline, and more than one-in-five threatened with extinction – including 97% of the listed fish. Globally, 399 migratory species threatened or near threatened with extinction are not currently listed.
The two greatest threats to migratory species are overexploitation and habitat loss due to human activity, according to the report.
The SMC asked experts to comment.
Dr Nic Rawlence, Director, Otago Palaeogenetics Laboratory, University of Otago, comments:
“Prior to human expansion, multitudes of species criss-crossed the globe on migratory journeys that had been occurring for millions of years. However, since our species has spread around the world, our footprint has significantly impacted migratory species for the worst.
“The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals is an international treaty that New Zealand is a party to. Its aim is to protect migratory species and their habitats (ensuring connectivity) underpinned by the latest science. Why is this needed? Migratory species don’t care about political borders between countries.
“The first report under this convention has just been published. It does not paint a good picture. Of the migratory species listed under the convention (and a staggering ~400 species are not yet listed), 20% are threatened with extinction (this climbs to 97% in fish), 44% have decreasing populations, 75% are impacted by habitat loss, and 70% are affected by overexploitation.
“So what needs to be done? Frankly more of the good work that the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership does for example to help protect migratory birds like the bar-tailed godwit and their habitats. International cooperation is needed to map and protect migratory sites and combat overexploitation. If nothing changes, we will lose some of the biggest spectacles of the natural world.”
No conflicts of interest declared.
Dr Philippa Brakes, WDC Research Fellow, Honorary Lecturer University of Exeter, Chair of the CMS Expert Group on Animal Culture, comments:
“We welcome this comprehensive report which shines a light on the complexity of conserving migratory species that move across jurisdictional boundaries and may require collaboration between nations to ensure that populations thrive.
“In the future, it would be wonderful to see the scope of this important work expand to also include assessment of species that are not currently listed on the CMS appendices. For example, to include species such as the Indus river dolphin (Platanista minor). Listing on the CMS Appendices is often the result of political impetus from range states and a broader sense of the state of non-listed migratory species might also reveal some important gaps.
“In addition, cutting edge work that CMS has also been undertaking over the last decade on animal culture and conservation can provide fascinating insights on how migration is culturally mediated for some species, through the transmission of social knowledge.”
Conflicts of interest: Philippa is Chair of the CMS Expert Group on Animal Culture.
Graeme Taylor, DOC Principal Science Advisor and CMS Science Councillor for New Zealand, comments:
“This new report concerns the migrations of billions of animals that move across and beyond national borders each year. Hence the theme of this year’s Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) Conference of Parties – Nature Knows No Borders. The report on the State of the World’s Migratory Species brings together a vast amount of information from across the globe and distils this down to a State, Pressure, Response model reflecting what is currently happening to all the species that move over large distances. These include large mammals, birds, bats, whales and dolphins, marine turtles, sharks and rays and even migrating insects.
“The report identifies the current conservation status of these migratory species, highlighting that many threatened species are currently listed under Appendix II of the Convention and may require the improved protection and concerted actions they would receive under an Appendix I listing. Our Appendix I species include Antipodean albatross, great white shark, oceanic whitetip shark and leatherback turtles. Some highly threatened migratory seabirds in New Zealand aren’t CMS-listed and this is something that needs attention in the next few years.
“The Pressures section identifies four major contributing issues to declining migratory species around the world. These include loss or reduction in important habitats such as stopover sites or deterioration in breeding and foraging habitats as land is taken over by agriculture and urbanisation. For example, shorebirds such as godwits and knots are impacted by habitat loss as they fly back to the Arctic breeding grounds. Exploitation of animals (direct harvest or killing) is a major concern in countries with large human populations and where poverty threatens the wellbeing and survival of communities that depend on migratory species. Climate change is already creating major habitat change issues for migratory species and this will only intensify over time. Pollution such as marine plastics and light pollution are also drivers of species decline. In New Zealand, major past and current threats include invasive species, but these have been reduced by Department of Conservation pest eradication projects and community action such as predator-free initiatives.
“In New Zealand, climate change has begun to have impacts at breeding sites of many migratory species. Light pollution and crash-landings of birds is an increasing problem for some seabird populations near urban centres or those attracted to brightly lit ships at night. New Zealand has been proactive in protecting migratory species that breed on land but there is still work to do in protecting sufficient critical marine habitats. Active engagement with fishers and their government agencies both in New Zealand and overseas offers the best opportunity to get mitigation methods adopted that will reduce incidental bycatch in commercial fisheries. New Zealand is also active in working groups under the Convention on Migratory Species looking into climate change and light pollution impacts on our migratory species. These workshops are seeking solutions to these problems.
“New Zealand does not face the same major issues as countries that are being driven by large human populations with high levels of poverty as highlighted in the new report. But we have a suite of issues covered in the report that we need to work on to secure the long-term future of our migratory species.
“Engagement with international partners is the only opportunity we have to protect these animals once they depart from our national borders.”
Conflict of interest: Graeme is the CMS Science Councillor for New Zealand.
Professor Rochelle Constantine, Institute of Marine Science, Waipapa Taumata Rau – University of Auckland, comments:
“Migratory species truly test global commitments to protecting ecosystems and populations. Despite decades of research, international agreements, local and global initiatives, 20% of migratory species monitored by the CMS are threatened with extinction.
“The ocean is a single, vast, connected space allowing some of the longest migrations – by whales, sharks, turtles, seabirds. Whales are swimming thousands of kilometres only to find key feeding grounds without sufficient prey; seabirds are finding resting stopovers destroyed for human development, and dolphins, sharks and seabirds are being caught at unsustainable levels in ever growing fisheries.
“We face immense challenges implementing meaningful change for migratory species. Their decline has significant ecological impacts, and reflects rapid environmental change, as seen with whales in Antarctica. Also, these animals often indicate rapid environmental change.
“Aotearoa New Zealand spans subtropical to subantarctic waters and the ocean is critical habitat for several of the most vulnerable marine animals. We are a global hotspot for cetaceans and seabirds, important taonga to us all. We can protect migratory species here; but plans to reopen fossil fuel exploration, ignoring best practice to mitigate bycatch and seabed destruction needs rethinking. We need to be part of the solution, not accelerate the loss or displacement of these animals who have been here long before we arrived.”
No conflicts of interest.
Associate Professor Phil Battley, Zoology and Ecology Group, Massey University, comments:
“This report paints a bleak picture for migratory animals, whose movements place them at risk from multiple threats through the year. For many international shorebirds, their annual migrations pass through one of the most threatened areas of tidal flat in the world, the Yellow Sea, and we have seen population declines in virtually all the northern hemisphere species that reach the shores of Aotearoa. The scale of historic impacts in that area would astound most New Zealanders, but are signs that attitudes are changing.
“The governments of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Korea, which both formerly promoted vast reclamation projects, have halted major coastal land claims, though there are still multitudes of impacts on tidal flat environments. High-level international relationships must continue to stress New Zealand’s support for such measures, and to facilitate the collaborative networks that seek to protect these areas and the birds that use them. Our bar-tailed godwits, red knots and other species that migrate across hemispheres may rely on very few stopover sites, and habitually use the same places year after year. Their continued existence needs these sites to be protected, and New Zealand has an important role to play with its international partners in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.”
Dr Emma Carroll, Associate Professor – Biological Sciences, Waipapa Taumata Rau – University of Auckland, comments:
“This ‘State of the World’s Migratory Species’ is a call to arms to help protect some of the world’s most amazing animals – those that regularly travel thousands of kms to breed and feed. We know from our own backyard that protection measures suggested in the document work, when properly monitored and enforced – the moratorium on whaling and protection of key breeding areas has supported a rebound of New Zealand southern right whales – tohorā from fewer than 40 a century ago to several thousand today. If we stop killing animals and give them space to breed and feed, their populations can recover. As a global community we need to give them a chance and do it soon.”
No conflicts of interest declared
Dr Riley Elliot, School of Biological Sciences, Waipapa Taumata Rau – University of Auckland, comments:
“Significant push back has come from the fishing industry to provide this transparency, and while improvements have recently occurred for some inshore fisheries, it is the offshore fisheries that have the greatest impact on highly migratory oceanic species. Without adequate bycatch data, or how such bycatch is released dead or alive, or harvested, scientists are unable to adequately manage the impact on bycatch species. The single greatest victory that could come for HMS is transparency in offshore fishing fleets. With such data, we can then, and only then, begin to manage our impact.”
No conflicts of interest declared.
Dr Paul Franklin, Programme Leader Freshwater Species, NIWA Hamilton, comments:
“The first ever State of the World’s Migratory Species report highlights the important role of migratory species across the globe and, unfortunately, their ongoing decline. In Aotearoa New Zealand, many of our well-known (and many of our less well-known) freshwater fishes, for example tuna (eels) and whitebait, are migratory – moving between our rivers and the sea at different parts of their life cycle. However, like their global counterparts, they are threatened by habitat loss and degradation and a loss of connectivity between habitats.
“Access to more than half of New Zealand’s river network is restricted by barriers (e.g. dams, weirs and poorly designed culverts), contributing to ongoing declines in many of our freshwater fishes (around ¾ of our freshwater fishes are classified as At Risk or Threatened). To halt and reverse declines in many of our iconic freshwater taonga we must take action to restore river connectivity and recognise the importance of unimpeded access between habitats for their survival. Of note is the report’s recognition that climate change is an increasing threat for many migratory species and this will be no different here in New Zealand.”
No conflicts of interest.