Safe at last: Spoonie’s winter wonderland becomes Ramsar site

spoon-billed sandpiper.jpg(Alex Dale 5 June 2017)

Following tireless work from BirdLife Partner BANCA, Myanmar’s Government has designated part of the Gulf of Mottama a Ramsar Site – affording this vast wetland, an important wintering site for globally threatened waders, protection against the threat of over-fishing.

Picture it in your mind’s eye: a wild, untamed stretch of coast, where rapid, powerful waves lash at the endless mud flats, constantly resculpting and refreshing the shoreline.

Imagine, too, tidal flats that teem with life, as fish and invertebrates alike feast on the sediments and nutrients that flow into the coastal waters via three major rivers. What you’re picturing is the Gulf of Mottama – a giant, funnel-shaped estuary in Myanmar, and one of the most important wintering sites for migratory waterbirds in Asia.

So rich are the pickings at the Gulf of Mottama that one out of every two Spoonies recommend it – Spoonie, of course, being the colloquial name for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Calidris pygmaea, a Critically Endangered wader that has been hit hard by habitat loss across its wintering grounds. Here in the Gulf of Mottama, up to 180-220 Spoonies are estimated to arrive every winter – around half the global population of this scarce bird, cementing the area’s status as an area of outstanding conservational value.

And yet, until very recently, the Gulf of Mottama’s future was far from secure. Despite its importance for threatened migratory waders such as Spoonie, Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris and Spotted Greenshank Tringa guttifer, and its recognition by BirdLife as an IBA Danger Important Bird & Biodiversity Area (IBA), the Gulf received no formal protection status, and this has led to its resources being drained at an alarming rate.

The biggest threat to this valuable ecosystem is over-fishing. The numbers of fish in its waters have plummeted over the last decade, largely as a result of illegal fishers using nets that indiscriminately trap fish of all sizes and varieties – including juveniles. Bird hunting, too, has been a problem in recent years, but it is difficult to effectively control these threats in areas that do not benefit from government protection.

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