Migratory animals face sharp declines: New U.N. report

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by Jay Watson, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Every year, billions of the world’s animals make incredible journeys over land and sea to breed and find food. Some of these species – including songbirds, shorebirds, raptors, whales, sharks, sea turtles, fish, and monarch butterflies – travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to reach their destinations.

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New Jerseyans are fortunate to live in a state that hosts many migratory species. In the spring and summer, for example, our forests are filled with the songs of over 75 species of tanagers, vireos, warblers, cuckoos, flycatchers, grosbeaks, swallows, swifts, hummingbirds, other birds that spend their winters in the tropics and come here to breed. We may glimpse migratory raptors like peregrine falcons and ospreys soaring overhead in search of prey.

During the spring migration, we may spot red knots, sanderlings, plover and ruddy turnstones on New Jersey’s bay and ocean beaches. The red knot is especially remarkable, migrating 9,000 miles from the southern tip of South America to the arctic, stopping in New Jersey to rest and refuel. In early fall, we may see colorful monarch butterflies feeding on flower nectar before making their epic migration to Mexico.

New Jersey’s migratory marine creatures include whales, sea turtles, sharks and fish that live off our shores for part of the year.

Around the world, migrating animals face enormous challenges and threats along their journeys – and at the places where they breed or feed.

These challenges are described in the United Nations’ first-ever report on migrating animals, “The State of the World’s Migrating Species.” It paints a sobering picture, noting that the populations of over 40% of migratory species are declining.

The new report focuses mainly on species listed in the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), a U.N. treaty to protect biodiversity. Species listed under the Convention are those at risk of extinction across all or much of their range, or in need of coordinated international action to boost their conservation status.

Of the 1,189 species listed in the CMS treaty, 44% have seen numbers decline, and as many as 22% are at risk of going extinct. Nearly all CMS-listed fish (97%) are threatened with extinction. Only a handful of migratory animals worldwide are seeing their populations improve; among them are blue and humpback whales.

According to the report, one of greatest threats to migratory species is habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, affecting 75% of CMS-listed species. Loss of habitat is increasingly disrupting the ability of migratory species to move freely along their migration routes, particularly when large areas of continuous habitat are converted into smaller, isolated patches. Many habitat threats stem from human activities, including agriculture and the construction of transportation and energy infrastructure.

Another enormous threat is overexploitation, which includes unsustainable hunting, overfishing, and the capture of non-target species such as “bycatch” in commercial fishing. An estimated 70% of CMS migratory species are affected by overexploitation.

Climate change, environmental pollution and invasive species are also having profound impacts on migratory species. Rising temperatures can disrupt the timing of migrations, cause heat stress in animals, and drive destructive storms, droughts and forest fires.

“The report finds that the conservation status of migratory species overall is deteriorating,” said Amy Fraenkel, CMS executive secretary. “The conservation needs and threats to migratory species need to be addressed with greater effectiveness, at a broader scale, and with renewed determination.”

The report recommends several priority actions:

·        Protect, connect and restore habitats – This is something already being done in New Jersey through various programs, including the Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres open space preservation program and the Connecting Habitat Across New Jersey (CHANJ) program.

·        Reduce the damaging impacts of environmental pollution – Pollutants include agricultural pesticides like the dangerous neonicotinamides that cause the collapse of the songbird food web by wiping out insect populations. While New Jersey has limited the use of “neonics” in residential areas, our agricultural landscape is exempt from restrictions. The state of New York recently increased its restrictions on the use of neonics to include agriculture, and New Jersey should do the same. Other severe forms of pollution include light pollution, seismic testing for oceanic oil and gas exploration that affects sensitive marine species, lead ammunition and fishing weights, and plastic pollution on land and in water.

·        Tackle overexploitation – Strengthen collaborative international efforts to tackle illegal and unsustainable take, and work to reduce the impacts of overfishing and incidental catch on marine migratory species.

·        Address the root causes and impacts of climate change – Deliver on commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and help migratory species adapt to a changing climate through targeted ecosystem restoration efforts.

As I anxiously await the arrival of the neotropical songbird migration this spring, I will be headed to preserves in the Sourland Mountains, the largest intact forest remaining in Central New Jersey and a critical stopover and breeding ground for many species. And who can miss the annual spring shorebird migration along our Cape and Delaware Bayshore, recognized as a globally important migratory stopover for shorebirds as they make their way to their Arctic breeding grounds?

As they say, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. We cannot afford for any important habitats along these migration routes to fail. Broken links can cause a collapse of these species that have followed these patterns for millennia. Let’s make sure our important habitats are “Jersey Strong!”

As Fraenkel notes, migratory species are a shared natural treasure, and their survival is a shared conservation responsibility. These animals play a critical role in healthy ecosystems, and following the report’s recommendations will help ensure that they can continue to traverse the world’s skies, lands, oceans, lakes and rivers.

To read the report, go to www.cms.int/en/news/landmark-un-report-reveals-shocking-state-wildlife-world%E2%80%99s-migratory-species-animals-are.  

And to learn about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

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