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Europe and Central Asia

The Wadden Sea is in danger, says first-ever migration report of whole East Atlantic Flyway

By Sanya Khetani-Shah, 28 Sep 2015

The Wadden Sea in Europe is a vast coastal wetland comprising tidal flats, islands, salt marshes and other habitats. It stretches over 450 km along the North Sea coast of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark and at almost 10,000 square kilometres, it is one of the largest wetlands in the world.

But this isn’t its only claim to fame. This Natura 2000 site is used by twelve million birds every year, as it is crucial to more than 60 species at the breeding, migrating and non-breeding stages of their life cycles. It is also one of the most important sites on the East Atlantic Flyway: the path used by about six million birds to migrate between their breeding grounds in the Arctic region and their wintering sites in Western Europe and the west coast of Africa, thousands of kilometres away. The birds need the Wadden Sea and other sites to be able to stop to rest and eat before continuing their migratory journey.

The degradation or disappearance of even one of these sites, therefore, is dangerous to migratory birds, which makes assessing these species’ populations a good indication of the health of the sites.

This is why it is alarming that of the 66 species using the East Atlantic Flyway, waterbirds that feed on shellfish, crabs and worms in the Wadden Sea saw a drop in numbers by 2.5 million between 2003 and 2014, although the fish eating species saw a rise. More disturbingly, birds that are largely dependent on the Wadden Sea – like the Eurasian Oystercatcher – are declining, compared to those that are not. Populations that breed in the Wadden Sea also seem to be declining.

The findings have been published in a census report on migratory birds along the East Atlantic Flyway. This was conducted in 2014 by the Wadden Sea Flyway Initiative, Wetlands International and BirdLife International, together with national organisations government institutions, with financial support from the Programme toward a Rich Wadden Sea (PRW) of the Netherlands’ Ministry of Economic Affairs, and MAVA Foundation, among others.

This report explains the findings of the annual International Waterbird Census – the long-term site-based monitoring scheme for waterbirds in the non-breeding season. What makes the 2014 count different is that, as seen in the report, it focuses on the flyway as a whole, the first time such simultaneous and integrated monitoring has been attempted. About 1,500 birders in 30 countries counted almost 15 million individual birds, and the findings were compared with individual surveys from 1980 onwards.

The report states that overall flyway population trends are more positive than those in the Wadden Sea. This suggests that trends in the Wadden Sea are mainly caused by local factors, such as predation and depleting food resources (caused by land reclamation, an increase in fisheries’ activities, oil and natural gas extraction and industrial pollution), rather than global factors like climate change.

The count has proved what scientists have been saying all along: despite being declared a World Heritage Site by the UN in 2009 and being a Natura 2000 site, the Wadden Sea is still in danger. To improve the situation, the PRW programme has introduced dynamic zones and “Wadden Sea hosts”, who provide information on the area and the rules of conduct to boaters visiting the region. The programme is also working on anti-predation and conservation measures – such as restoring natural structures that provide food and shelter to birds on the coast – and the creation of climate-proof islands (to withstand rising sea levels) for birds in the Wadden Sea.

The main aim of the research was to gain more insight into the entire flyway in order to pinpoint exactly where a given bird population can best be helped. “The integrated census in 2014 resulted in new insights,” says Manon Tentij of PRW. “We plan to conduct this census more often in the future. The results of the census will become increasingly reliable and this will help to protect the birds more effectively.”