SCIENTISTS and researchers have identified a major contributor to the dramatic decline of migratory shorebird populations in Australia, the loss of habitat in Asia’s Yellow Sea.
University of Queensland School of Biological Sciences researcher Associate Professor Richard Fuller said Australian shorebirds were under threat due to the degradation and destruction of mudflats in north-east Asia.
Professor Fuller was part of a team of researchers who worked on a shorebird study led by the University of Maryland’s Assistant Professor Dr Colin Studds.
Dr Studds said a critical factor in the decline of migratory shorebirds was their dependence on mudflats in the Yellow Sea, between China and South Korea.
“The more a species relies on the disappearing Yellow Sea mudflats, the faster they are declining,” Dr Studds said.
Late last year Walker Corp – the developer who proposes to rebuild Cleveland’s Toondah Harbour into a major $1.39 billion marina and housing project – announced that it would investigate a bird habitat offset in the Yellow Sea between China and Korea.
Walker’s Queensland general manager Peter Saba said Professor Fuller’s study appeared consistent with the advice consultants had provided to his company.
It also matched the Federal Government’s Wildlife Conservation Plan for Migratory Shorebirds which included measures to halt the loss of staging sites in the Yellow Sea region.
“We have previously flagged our willingness to explore a Yellow Sea offset, if practical to do so and considered suitable by regulators,’’ Mr Saba said.
“It is too early to say whether an offset for the Toondah Harbour development would have merit.
“We understand that matching like for like is the important consideration for any offset approach.
“Without a controlled action decision and a detailed environmental impact statement, we are unable to explore this in detail.’’
Dr Studds said birds including godwits, curlews and sandpipers were under threat.
Many birds follow the East Asian Australasian Flyway migratory path from their non-breeding grounds in Australia to breeding sites in the Arctic, resting and refueling in the Yellow Sea.
“Scientists have long believed that loss of these rest stops could be related to the declines, but there was no smoking gun,” Dr Studds said.
The researchers analysed citizen science data collected between 1993 and 2012 on 10 key species, and found that even though the birds spend just one or two months at the mudflats, it was the most important factor in determining their populations.
Professor Fuller said the study was founded on decades of bird counting.
Australia has signed agreements with China, Korea and Japan to protect migratory birds, yet the birds have continued to decline, raising concerns from local birdwatchers and scientists about the potential impact from the Toondah expansion.
“Every country along the migration route of these birds must protect habitat and reduce hunting to prevent the birds declining further or even going extinct,” Professor Fuller said.