The 3rdAnniversary Mokpo Natural History Museum Symposium

The Great Migration of Shorebirds

September 14th 2007
The Yellow Sea: essential for millions of migrating shorebirds
Jan van de Kam, Professional Wildlife Photographer and Author
Birds Korea International Member


The birds that live on the tidal flats are very special in many ways. Most striking is the fact that they are able to live in this ever-changing habitat and that they are able to find their food in the mud. There is an abundance of prey in the soft mud, but only the birds with the right tools and the right skills are able to find this food.

Another intriguing aspect of the life of the millions of shorebirds is their migration. Some of them make a world-wide trip every year. The best example is the Bar-tailed Godwit. A recent research-project unveiled how these birds make their gigantic annual migration between Alaska and New Zealand and back. It also showed how important the Yellow Sea is for these birds. It is not just one of several stops on their flight: it is a real key-site. These Bar -tailed Godwits and many other species need the mudflats of the Yellow Sea as an essential stopover site. There is no other place along the Flyway where so many birds can collect enough food for the last leg of their flight to the breeding grounds. Only the birds that arrive on the breeding grounds in good condition are able to produce offspring.

The conservation of the mudflats around the Yellow Sea is therefore also essential for birds that breed in the tundra of Siberia and Alaska and winter in southern areas like Australia and New Zealand; it is an important international responsibility.

left: Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus right: Jan van de Kam (front right)

The Conservation of Korean Tidal-Flats:
Extremely Important for both Shorebirds and People
Nial Moores, Director, Birds Korea.


Tidal-flats are a globally rare and especially productive kind of ecosystem, typically supporting huge concentrations of specialized species, several of which (including some species of crab, shellfish and fish) are harvested in large number by both people and birds. Many tidal-flat species have become globally threatened. Of the 14 or so globally threatened bird species that occur annually in internationally significant numbers in South Korea, all but three are wetland species found regularly on tidal-flats or in estuaries, with five or six of these fully dependent on tidal-flats. South Korea's tidal-flats also support a very significant percentage of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway's shorebirds (estimated by the Ministry of Environment as 12.7% of the Flyway's shorebirds on northward migration and 8.7% on southward migration), including probably 40% or more of the world's Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris and approximately 50% of the total population of the Eastern Oystercatcher Haematopus (ostralegus) osculans. Tidal-flats are also extremely important for people. They are key to economically-important fisheries and to the amelioration of water quality problems, and if properly managed they can also provide excellent opportunities for recreation and environmental education. Despite their immense value, however, tidal-flats have become one of Korea's most threatened habitats. Historic national tidal-flat area has already been reduced by reclamation from an estimated 450,000 ha to less than 200,000 ha at present, with one recent estimate suggesting that national tidal-flat area will be reduced further to a little over 110,000 ha within a decade. Moreover, most of the tidal-flats that do remain have become increasingly degraded due to barrage construction, pollution and unsustainable use. The cost to Korea of such tidal-flat loss and degradation is immense, while the potential benefits of tidal-flat conservation are enormous. As South Korea prepares to host the next triennial Ramsar Convention conference (in October 2008), now is the time for all of us – non-government and government, specialist and non-specialist – to work together to better conserve South Korea's greatest natural resource: our tidal-flats.

The Importance of Tidal-flat Conservation

Thank you for the invitation to speak here today.

Before talking about the importance of conserving tidal-flats, it is first important to define and talk a little about “conservation”. Conservation means “wise use” and good management. It means sustainable use, that allows the natural resource to be used and maintained not only in the short-term (5 or 10 or 30 years), but for many human generations. Conservation is therefore not anti-development, it is simply anti-bad development. It provides long-term benefits to all, either directly or indirectly, in the short term or the long-term, while all the time maintaining the resource. Conservation is like living sensibly on the interest of savings in the bank, rather than spending all that money at once. The opposite of conservation is unwise use and bad development: destruction of the natural resource base without thought for the future.

Another way to describe the real meaning of conservation: If you are cold, and you close the windows and the door, and put on more clothes to keep warm, you are practicing one form of conservation. If instead you leave the windows and door open, and then start to burn your furniture and belongings to keep warm, you are acting unsustainably. For a while you will indeed become warm, even very warm!, but eventually you will have burnt even the chair you sit on and the clothes you wear, to keep the flames alive.

Looking at the world around us, it is easy to see that many people, many nations, are now burning, using up, all the resources that they have to keep themselves and their economies hot. But how long can this go on for? Already we have global warming; a rapid increase in the rate of extinction (estimated at 200 times the rate before humanity); the demise of fisheries in seas and oceans around the world; desertification spreading across China and parts of Africa; and less and less space and clean water for more and more people.

We have arrived at a time quite simply when there is an urgent need for people to look honestly towards the future, and to start to understand conservation as real progress.

Here in Korea, there has already been tremendous effort to restore large areas of forest. This global leadership in reforestation has improved the air quality and helped reduce water pollution in some areas; and greatly improved opportunities for recreation: such are some of many of the benefits of forest conservation.

But the wetland areas of Korea, as in many parts of the world, still remain under enormous pressure. There are two main types of wetland, freshwater and coastal, and both provide numerous benefits to people. Freshwater wetlands when well managed provide clean water for drinking and good water for irrigation, as well as being massively important habitat for wildlife. Coastal wetlands, like tidal-flats and estuaries, support huge fisheries; maintain good water quality in inshore waters; help protect against damage from storms; and in Korea especially also support a huge number of birds and other species. Already in Korea, however, almost all natural freshwater wetland has been lost, or modified and degraded. In the coastal zone, the pressures of development have also meant that almost all major rivers have been barraged and over 60% of Korea's natural tidal-flat area of 450,000 ha has already been lost. Moreover, despite Korea's passing wetland conservation laws and joining the international Ramsar wise use of wetlands convention, the present total area of tidal-flat is estimated to decline because of reclamation to only 110,000 ha, less than one quarter of the original area, in only the next ten years or so. Since I first conducted bird and wetland surveys around the Korean coast in 1998 and 1999, I have seen with my own eyes the destruction of numerous internationally important tidal-flats, tidal-flats that should have been protected under national law and Ramsar – tidal-flats at Yeongjong, at Song Do, in Asan and Namyang Bays, at Gwangyang and the Nakdong, and of course at Saemangeum.

The costs of this scale of reclamation have already been enormous. While some human communities have become rich in the short-term, Korea's and the Yellow Sea's fisheries have been all but destroyed. Many island and coastal fishing communities can no longer survive. Shellfish and fish now need to be imported to South Korea…from China and the DPRK. Many bird species are also in rapid decline.

The Yellow Sea is one of the world's few areas with massive tidal-flats; it also had one of the most productive fisheries in the world. Several bird species evolved to depend especially on the Yellow Sea. Species like the Black-faced Spoonbill, the Chinese Egret and the Saunders's Gull are effectively confined to the Yellow Sea as breeding species. All such species are now globally threatened, with very small and fragile populations. There are only about 8,000 Saunders's Gull, 3000 Chinese Egret and 1500 Black-faced Spoonbills remaining in the world. Some other species have become even rarer. My personal favorite species is the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. This is a small and beautiful sandpiper that breeds in Chuchotka; migrates through the Yellow Sea; and spends the winter in Southern Asia, mainly in Thailand and Bangladesh. It depends on tidal-flats in open estuaries, where it seems to find its food by digging small holes in the mud, into which water carrying small worms and other animals flow, trapping them, when it can eat them. Based on mtDNA studies, it is estimated that until fairly recently there were 60,000 Spoon-billed Sandpiper in the world. Ten years ago, the number was estimated at only a few thousand pairs. By 2005, this number had fallen to only 350 pairs. This year, based on surveys in summer and winter, it is believed by some that there are only 100 pairs remaining. Unless something changes for the better, now, this species will be extinct within the next 10 or 20 years. The main reason for their decline is of course tidal-flat loss, due to reclamation.

While the extinction of a single species like a Spoon-billed Sandpiper might not cause much concern to most people, it needs to be understood that its extinction will be caused by the disappearance of dynamic tidal-flats and estuaries throughout Asia. This species' extinction therefore signals the loss of habitat for many species of fish, crab, shellfish and worms as well as other bird species - species like the Bar-tailed Godwits, the champions of migration, that link wetlands in New Zealand and Australia to those here in Mokpo and the Yellow Sea, along with the estuaries and tidal-flats of Siberia and Alaska (as we will hear in the next presentation). The extinction of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, or of any specialized estuarine species, would signal the extinction of the same habitat and species that human fishing communities have been using and depending on for thousands of years.

It is not too late. There is still time, we believe, to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and the other species and the estuaries that they depend on. But this can only happen if people choose wetland conservation over unwise use. Now, not later.

Here in Mokpo, this exhibition and this symposium offers much hope. Here, in a museum where we can begin to sense and feel the enormity of the Earth's history, we can both look clearly at the past, and also have the chance to see the present and the future.

Birds Korea believes that through careful and thoughtful management, the small tidal-flat and lagoon just outside of the museum here can be used for the conservation of biodiversity, for environmental education and for recreation, providing real value for citizens for generations to come. Through best-use conservation of this site, Mokpo could gain an extremely valuable resource, one that would help the city win both national and international recognition – especially at this time, one year before South Korea hosts the next international, intergovernmental Ramsar “Wise Use of Wetlands” Conference (in Changwon, between October 28 and November 4, 2007).

On behalf of our organization, I again thank you for the invitation to speak here today at this important time, and would like to finish by thanking the wonderful city and citizens of Mokpo for all of their work, now and into the future, for the conservation of birds and their precious tidal-flat habitats.

Exhibition: The Shorebirds at Mokpo Namhang Sea
September 14th − October 26th 2007

Exhibition room - 360° Panorama

Entrance banner

Wall chart Mokpo Namhang Sea

Wall charts 1 and 2 about migration and flagging

Wall charts 3 and 4 about migration and flagging

Banding presentation

See the Banding presentation online.