Spotlight: Assessing hunting policy for multi-citizenship birds

Migratory shorebirds inhabit many countries on their annual journeys. These journeys are awe-inspiring, but the migratory lifestyle of shorebirds puts them into a legal predicament that has resulted a complex conservation challenge. In a way, they have multiple “citizenships”. As stated eloquently by Watts and Turrin in their paper in this issue of Wader Study1, “states have sovereign rights over all wild animals that fall within their jurisdictional boundaries but no jurisdiction over animals outside of these boundaries”. This means that migrating shorebirds are subject to the policies of all of the countries they visit, in succession. When these policies include hunting, it is easy to imagine how sustainable limits could be crossed.

Shorebird hunting is legal in many jurisdictions in the Western Hemisphere. Although each jurisdiction might set sustainable limits, there is not enough information on the cumulative number of individuals killed along an entire migratory route – the collective harvest – to assess whether per species limits are sustainable across a flyway. Estimates of sustainable mortality limits for 36 species using the Western Atlantic Flyway showed that hunting pressure might already be too high for several species2. Too many birds are being taken – perhaps not in any one country, but across a flyway – to maintain population sizes necessary to meet biological and social needs.

To set sustainable limits across a flyway, we must first understand the policies that govern shorebird hunting for each jurisdiction within that flyway: whether or not shorebirds can be hunted, when during the year, by whom and in what numbers. Watts and Turrin present a benchmark assessment of shorebird hunting policies in the Western Hemisphere. Their study area including jurisdictions within the primary shorebird flyways of the Western Hemisphere: the Western Atlantic Flyway, the East Pacific Flyway, and the Mississippi or Interior American Flyway.

How does one go about finding out what shorebird hunting policies (both domestic policies and international conventions and treaties) are over such a large area? First the researchers focused on 45 migratory shorebird species, excluding sedentary species, short-distance migrants (species that exhibit only local movements) and vagrants. Then they decided to categorize three levels of protection: 1) not protected, 2) seasonally protected, and 3) fully protected. Finally, they narrowed their focus to policies on subsistence, commercial, and sport/recreational hunting, excluding the killing of shorebirds for nuisance/control or scientific collecting. With these limits in mind, the researchers systematically searched for legislation from each jurisdiction, using government databases, national official gazettes, national hunting calendars, peer-reviewed journal articles, government agency reports, websites of international conventions and treaties (CITES, CMS, SPAW), and reports by independent scientific or conservation organizations such as BirdLife International and the Caribbean Environment Programme. Finally, when they could not find information on details such as bag limits or seasons in the legislation, they consulted local contacts, provincial or state hunting calendars, and local online news sources.

The researchers identified a total of 57 jurisdictions in the Western Hemisphere, including 35 independent nations and 22 dependent territories or other entities. The dependencies included overseas departments and collectivities of France, constituent countries and special municipalities of the Netherlands, overseas territories of the United Kingdom, and unincorporated organized territories of the United States. Most of these diverse jurisdictions (96.5%) participate in at least one international treaty designed to protect migratory birds and of these jurisdictions, nearly 90% have established corresponding domestic laws.

The researchers found that most of the domestic wildlife policies (91.2%) fell into two categories: policies that protect all or nearly all (>90%) migratory shorebirds, or policies that protect very few (<10%). In many ways, the heterogeneity reflects the political histories of the jurisdictions, many of which are political units of European countries. For example, the majority of jurisdictions that are overseas territories of the United Kingdom have complete prohibitions on shorebird hunting, while the majority of overseas departments and collectivities of France have relatively liberal hunting policies.

Of the 27 jurisdictions that authorize some form of shorebird hunting, 22 (81.5%) require a hunting license, 14 (51.8%) specify a hunting season and 12 (44.4%) have bag limits for at least a portion of the hunted species. Commercial hunting is not acknowledged in the policies of most jurisdictions. It is explicitly authorized in Venezuela and prohibited in 23 jurisdictions. Recreational hunting of shorebirds is legal in 16 jurisdictions, but only occurs in practice in 11 of these, 10 of which are within the Western Atlantic Flyway. Finally, subsistence hunting has legal status in 16 jurisdictions, including 10 where all other forms of shorebird hunting are prohibited. Subsistence hunting is widespread throughout rural communities and is accepted in many cultures regardless of national policy. Therefore, it may have the largest collective impact on shorebird populations.

Young boy with shorebirds hunted for subsistence in the Bay of Martaban, Myanmar, Jan 2010 (Photo provided by the Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association of Myanmar).

Young boy with shorebirds hunted for subsistence in the Bay of Martaban, Myanmar, Jan 2010 (Photo provided by the Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association of Myanmar).

An example of how even moderate subsistence hunting can have a large impact on a vulnerable species is found in the story of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Myanmar. Bird hunting provides the poorest in Myanmar society with a reliable source of protein and sometimes a small livelihood. But it has a devastating effect on some shorebirds. Previous research by an international team of scientists from the United Kingdom, Myanmar, Russia and Thailand has shown that hunting in Myanmar is probably the main cause of the decline of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper3. How to balance the needs of the birds with the needs of the poorest people in Myanmar? Interventions by the Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association of Myanmar (BANCA) and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Recovery Team may hint at an answer. BANCA carried out education and awareness raising activities in the villages concurrent with a socio-economic intervention that provided villagers with assets such as livestock, fishing boats and building materials so that they could begin replacement livelihoods. In exchange, the villagers vowed to stop bird hunting. Early reports indicate that the intervention may be having a positive effect for both the birds and the people4.

The example of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper shows success by working from the bottom up. Success is also possible working from the top down and Watts and Turrin’s benchmark assessment of shorebird hunting policies brings us one step closer to such success. Now that we have a synthesis on hunting policies across the Western Atlantic Flyway, more information is needed on the collective, legal harvest of all shorebirds. Putting together information on current policies, collective harvests, and the mortality tolerances of different shorebird species will bring us closer to the conservation objective of hunting policies that ensure the future health of hunted populations by limiting take to, or below, the limits of what populations are capable of withstanding.


Deborah M. Buehler
Outreach Editor, ‘Wader Study’

  1. Watts, B.D. & C. Turrin. 2016. Assessing Hunting Policies for Migratory Shorebirds throughout the Western Hemisphere. Wader Study 123(1): 6-15.
  1. Watts, B.D., E.T. Reed & C. Turrin. 2015. Estimating sustainable mortality limits for shorebirds using the Western Atlantic Flyway. Wader Study 122(1): 37–53.
  1. Zöckler, C., T. Htin Hla, N. Clark, E. Syroechkovskiy, N. Yakushev, S. Daengphayon & R. Robinson. 2010. Hunting in Myanmar is probably the main cause of the decline of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Calidris pygmeus. Wader Study Group Bulletin 117(1): 1–8.

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