Towards sustainable management of huntable migratory waterbirds in Europe


Courtesy of Wetlands International

The EU Birds Directive and the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement provide an adequate legal framework for sustainable management of migratory waterbird populations. The main shortcoming of both instruments is that it leaves harvest decisions of a shared resource to individual Member States and Contracting Parties without providing a shared information base and mechanism to assess the impact of harvest and coordinate actions in relation to mutually agreed objectives.

A recent update of the conservation status of waterbirds in the EU shows that almost half of the populations of species listed on Annex II of the Birds Directive have a declining short-term trend and over half of them are listed in Columns A and B of AEWA. This implies that their hunting could either only continue under the framework of an adaptive harvest management plan or their hunting should be regulated with the view of restoring them in favourable conservation status.

We argue that a structured approach to decision-making (such as adaptive management) is needed, supported with adequate organisational structures at flyway scale. We review the experience with such an approach in North America and assess the applicability of a similar approach in the European context. We show there is no technical reason why adaptive harvest management could be not applied in the EU or even AEWA context.

We demonstrate that an informed approach to setting allowable harvests does not require detailed demographic information. Essential to the process, however, are estimates of either the observed growth rate from a monitoring program or the growth rate expected under ideal conditions. In addition, periodic estimates of population size are needed, as well as either empirical information or reasonable assumptions about the form of density dependence. We show that such information exists for many populations, but improvements are needed to improve geographic coverage, reliability and timely data availability.

We highlight the importance of the International Waterbird Census and specialised goose and seaduck monitoring in estimating population sizes and observed growth rate of the populations. We encourage further investments into the development of these schemes. We also recognise the importance of migration studies to improve our understanding of delineations of populations.

We also highlight that, with a few exceptions, the available data does not allow the European Commission, competent authorities of the Members States or other AEWA Contracting Parties to assess levels of harvest and their sustainability and, therefore, regulate hunting accordingly. Therefore, we recommend that annual reporting on harvest levels of waterbird populations would be gradually introduced in the EU and the AEWA region.

We propose that future AEWA and EU action plans and management plans for Annex II species should apply the principles of adaptive harvest management framework and make provisions for setting up adequate monitoring and information management systems and organisational structures to manage the decision-making process. We suggest that internationally coordinated management structures are established to facilitate dialogue, learning and communication between stakeholders with different interests and cultural backgrounds.

Policy Background to Sustainable Harvest Management in Europe and in a Flyway Context
The need for international coordination in the management of migratory huntable waterbird populations has been recognised for a long time. Globally, the need to protect wetlands as habitats for migratory waterbirds was first enshrined in the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (1971). Additionally, the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) recognised the need for measures other than just habitat conservation. This broader approach was also followed by the Directive 2009/147/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on the conservation of wild birds (better known as the Birds Directive). The majority of EU Member States are also Contracting Parties to the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) that provides a management framework for the entire flyway including countries outside of the European Union.

According to the requirements of the Birds Directive, Member States of the European Union shall maintain the populations of European bird species at a level that corresponds to ecological, scientific and cultural requirements, while taking account of economic and recreational requirements or to adapt a population to that level. Such requirements, amongst others, include hunting as one of the legitimate uses of waterbirds and also recognising the positive effects hunting can have on waterbird populations through habitat maintenance and predator control. The Directive tries to achieve the above mentioned objective through habitat conservation and through provisions that regulate the disturbance and utilization of European bird species, including by hunting. In principle, only the species listed on Annex II of the Directive can be hunted across the EU or in certain Member States, but in all cases Member States shall ensure that the hunting of these species does not jeopardise conservation efforts in their distribution area (range). The ‘Guidance Document on Hunting under Council Directive 79/409/EEC on the conservation of wild birds’ (European Commission 2008) provides interpretation of the requirements of the Birds Directive. However, neither the Birds Directive nor the Hunting Guide intend to provide a mechanism for coordinated, science-based harvest management to address the sustainable management of populations of waterbirds, be they threatened, in favourable conservation status or conflicting / overabundant species. The Hunting Guide recognises that, “so that hunting does not lead to the decline of huntable species the general approach in wildlife management is to ensure that hunting of species does not exceed the range between ‘maximum’ and ‘optimum’ sustainable yield’’ (European Commission 2008). However, the Hunting Guide does not provide any specific guidelines to the national governments about how this can be achieved in the case of migratory species other than the avoidance of high levels of exploitation. Therefore, it is clear that a better understanding is needed of the flyway-level impact of harvesting and the state-of-the-art management principles, in order to assist Member States in meeting the requirements of the Habitat and Bird Directives.

AEWA came into force in 1999 under the framework of the CMS. It provides a management framework for the entire flyway of 555 populations of 255 migratory waterbird species according to their global conservation status (i.e. their listing on Appendix I of CMS and on the IUCN Red List), their population size, distribution and population trend. In general, Contracting Parties shall maintain or restore migratory waterbird populations to favourable conservation status. To this end, they shall prohibit the taking of birds and eggs of populations listed in Column A of Table 1 to the AEWA Action Plan. Hunting of populations listed in Categories 2, 3 and 4 in Column A can be conducted only within a sustainable use framework, ideally following the principles of adaptive harvest management. In the case of populations listed on Column B, Contracting Parties should regulate harvest with the view to maintaining or contributing to the restoration of those populations to a favourable conservation status and to ensure that any harvest is sustainable. Amongst other means this includes establishing harvest limits, where appropriate, and providing adequate controls to ensure that these limits are observed. Recently, AEWA started the implementation of internationally coordinated harvest management in the case of the Svalbard pink-footed goose Anser brachyrhynchus (Madsen & Williams 2012), and a process is underway for the taiga bean goose Anser fabalis fabalis. These management planning processes provide important lessons for the coordinated harvest management of a wider range of migratory waterbird species and may help to expand coordinated harvest management.

In this report we present the current status of huntable waterbirds within the EU and we lay out the basic principles of sustainable harvest that are the prerequisite for their exploitation. Combined with an overview of the current state of internationally coordinated monitoring of populations and their demography, as well as harvest, we provide recommendations on how to improve EU harvest management protocols and procedures on a flyway basis.

This report is timely for a number of reasons. Firstly, many waterbird populations listed on Annex II of the Birds Directive are declining in the European Union. According to AEWA and the Birds Directive, their continued hunting would require the preparation of management plans that would help them return to favourable conservation status. This is consistent with the recognition that continued hunting may provide incentives for habitat conservation measures that benefit the target species and where a hunting ban might therefore be counterproductive. However, the EU management plans that have been produced so far did not provide any framework for coordinated harvest management within the EU or at flyway level and thus it cannot guarantee that continued harvests have not jeopardised conservation efforts elsewhere in the flyway.

Secondly, populations of a number of waterbird species, both huntable and non-huntable, are rapidly increasing, and some of them cause damage or concern to agricultural crops, fishery interests, air safety and biodiversity. However, even in the case of these populations, ecological, scientific, cultural, economic and recreational requirements should be coherent, not only at the level of individual Member States but also at the flyway scale, yet this is not currently the case. In 2015, the European Commission will publish a report on the State of Nature in the EU with results from the new Article 12 reporting format, which for the first time contains quantitative information on bird populations in the EU. This will provide a basis for better implementation of the Directive and a means to measure progress towards target 1 of the EU Biodiversity Strategy.

Thirdly, the European Commission has launched a fitness check of the Birds Directive under its Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme, to be conducted in 2015. Although this report will show that the Birds Directive together with AEWA provide an adequate legal framework for sustainable harvest management at the flyway scale, we highlight the need for improving the generation of knowledge concerning the status and utilisation of waterbird populations and creating adequate international coordination mechanisms to ensure the sustainable harvest of migratory waterbirds at flyway scale. It is our hope that these recommendations can provide useful input to the EU fitness check process.

Status of Huntable Waterbirds in the European Union
Annex II of the Birds Directive lists 50 waterbird species in total, of which 16 are listed in Part A, i.e. they can be hunted across the European Union. The remainder (Part B) can only be hunted in certain Member States. These 50 species correspond to 83 biogeographic populations on AEWA’s Table 11. From these 83 populations, 30 are listed in Part A and 53 in Part B of Annex II.

Out of the populations listed in Part A of Annex II of the Birds Directive, one population, the taiga bean goose, is listed in Column A Category 3c* in Table 1 of the AEWA Action Plan. This means that the hunting of this population can continue only under the framework of an adaptive harvest management plan (that is currently being prepared under the framework of AEWA). Another 13 populations are listed in Column B of Table 1 of the AEWA Action Plan, i.e. their harvest should be regulated with the view to restoring them to or maintaining them in favourable conservation status. In Part B, however, there are six populations listed in Column A, including three populations of Globally Near Threatened Species and two Globally Threatened Species, the long-tailed duck Clangula hyemalis and velvet scoter Melanitta fusca. In addition, 22 populations from Part B of Annex II are listed in Column B of AEWA.

Considering the short-term (10-years) trends, of the 83 Annex II populations 35 (42%) have declined over the last decade, 27 (32%) were stable, fluctuating or uncertain and 21 (25%) have increased. Many of the increasing populations are Arctic breeding geese that can cause serious crop damage at their wintering and staging areas, while in some cases their increased populations may also affect sensitive natural vegetation at their breeding grounds. The management of such populations would also require an adaptive management framework to maintain their population at levels that correspond to ecological, scientific and cultural requirements while taking account of economic and recreational requirements.

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