There’s a new, first-of-its-kind report out today—the 88-page State of the World’s Migratory Species—put together by the Convention on Migratory Species. Let’s just cut to the chase.
The report finds that 44% of 1,189 migratory species listed under CMS are seeing population declines, more than 22% of CMS-listed species are threatened with extinction, nearly 97% of CMS-listed fish are threatened, 51% of Key Biodiversity Areas identified by CMS as important to migratory animals have no protected status, and 58% of monitored sites are under “unsustainable” levels of human pressure.
Since the mid-1990s, 70 CMS-listed migratory species have become endangered while just 14 have now improved their conservation status, these latter including the blue and humpback whales, the white-tailed sea eagle, and the black-faced spoonbill. Of greatest concern currently are almost all CMS-listed fish species, with the populations of migratory sharks, rays, and sturgeons having declined by 90% since the 1970s.
Here’s Inger Andersen, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the U.N. Environment Program, writing in the foreword of the report:
When we talk about the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss and pollution and waste, we often focus on hard-hit ecosystems and the communities and species that live, and suffer, in them year-round. We rarely talk about the migratory species that undertake astonishing journeys between these ecosystems, often through air, land and water increasingly damaged by unsustainable human activities.
The State of the World’s Migratory Species for the first time sets out compelling evidence of the peril facing these awe-inspiring animals. The report finds that migratory species are being hit hard, particularly by overexploitation and habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation. [...]
The urgency for action to protect and conserve these species becomes even greater when we consider the integral but undervalued role they play in maintaining the complex ecosystems that support a healthy planet—by, for example, transferring nutrients between environments, performing migratory grazing that supports the maintenance of carbon storing habitats, and pollination and seed dispersal services.
The worst threats to migratory species—whether CMS listed or not—come from “overexploitation and habitat loss” due to human behavior. But pollution, invasive species, and more and more climate change are also having profound impacts on migratory species. From the executive summary:
Levels of extinction risk are rising across CMS-listed species as a whole. Between 1988 and 2020, 70 CMS species showed a deterioration in conservation status, substantially more than the 14 species that showed an improvement in conservation status. Extinction risk is also escalating across t he wider group of migratory species not listed in CMS. A novel analysis produced for this report identified 399 globally threatened and Near Threatened migratory species (mainly birds and fish) that are not yet listed in the CMS Appendices that may benefit from international protection.
The deteriorating status of migratory species is being driven by intense levels of anthropogenic pressure. Due to their mobility, their reliance on multiple habitats, and their dependence on connectivity between different sites, migratory species are exposed to a diverse range of threats caused by human activity. Most migratory species are affected by a combination of threats, which often interact to exacerbate one another. Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation (primarily driven by agriculture), and overexploitation (hunting and fishing, both targeted and incidental) represent the two most pervasive threats to migratory species and their habitats according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM. Pollution, including pesticides, plastics, heavy metals and excess nutrients, as well as underwater noise and light pollution, represents a further source of pressure facing many species. The impacts of climate change are already being felt by many migratory species, and these impacts are expected to increase considerably over the coming decades, not just as a direct threat to species but also as an amplifier of other threats.
One aspect of the report that ought to be widely copied is that the detailed recommendations for addressing the situation appear early on in the report instead of being tacked on at the end. Here is an extremely condensed version:
- Strengthen and expand efforts to tackle illegal and unsustainable taking of migratory species, as well as incidental capture of non-target species,
- Increase actions to identify, protect, connect and effectively manage important sites for migratory species,
- Urgently address those species in most danger of extinction, including nearly all CMS-listed fish species,
- Scale up efforts to tackle climate change, as well as light, noise, chemical and plastic pollution, and,
- Consider expanding CMS listings to include more at-risk migratory species in need of national and international attention.
That’s a daunting wish list. And a crucial one.
Anyone who thinks that these great losses are sad but no big deal should ponder how it may affect their lives in the future. Some people are already finding out, like the Iñupiat people of the Arctic. But it’s not just remote, Indigenous communities that will be harmed. Benjamin von Brackel points out in his 2021 book “Nowhere Left to Go: How Climate Change Is Driving Species to the Ends of the Earth”:
“Bumblebees are the best pollinators we have in while landscapes and the most effective pollinators for crops like tomatoes, squash, and berries,” says Peter Soroye. “Our results show that we face a future with far fewer bumblebees and much less diversity, both in the outdoors and on our plates. [...]
But the disappearance of bumblebees doesn’t just have consequences for farmers: 85 percent of wild plants are only able to reproduce with the aid of pollinators. Without them, whole landscapes would no longer flower. And without wild plants, many animals would no longer be able to find the berries they depend on for food, ecosystems would collapse, and people, too, would be affected, because the ground would no longer take up water, leading to landslides and flooding.
Some billionaires may dream of life on a nearby planet without having to worry about any of the migratory and other creatures now under intense pressure on Earth. Such fantasies display a profound lack of understanding of how ecosystems work. Everything is connected. Kill off pieces of it and the whole is harmed.
About the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS)
An environmental treaty of the United Nations, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) provides a global platform for the conservation and sustainable use of migratory animals and their habitats. This unique treaty brings governments and wildlife experts together to address the conservation needs of terrestrial, aquatic, and avian migratory species and their habitats around the world. Since the Convention's entry into force in 1979, its membership has grown to include 133 Parties from Africa, Central and South America, Asia, Europe and Oceania.