Salt flats and mangroves at Ceará. All pictures courtesy of Alberto Campos of AQUASIS.
A multi-faceted research and monitoring project is getting underway to help conserve essential habitat for migratory shorebirds on the Atlantic coast of Ceará, in northeast Brazil.
The initiative will, according to Caio J. Carlos the project coordinator at AQUASIS, produce "reliable information on Nearctic migratory shorebird species richness and seasonal abundance; shorebird prey abundance and seasonal variation in different intertidal habitats (mudflats, salt flats, sand bars, mangroves), and, shorebird habitat loss to shrimp ponds in the past twenty years. We expect to produce conclusive spatial data about the extent of the impact of shrimp farming and to provide baseline information to support the planning, monitoring and management of priority areas for the conservation of migratory shorebird habitats."
The main objective, Carlos said in an email, "is to improve the understanding on shorebird seasonal abundance and stopover habitat quality and concurrently, the impacts of shrimp farming on intertidal environments used by shorebirds. In this sense, an intensive research program will quantify shorebird seasonal abundance and species composition and estimate shorebird prey abundance in different intertidal habitats."
Coastal landscape at Ceará.
"Four main questions are expected to be answered: (1) which species of Nearctic migratory shorebirds occur in Ceará and when, (2) what food resources are available for migratory shorebirds in this region and in which coastal habitats, (3) are salt flats important stopover habitats for shorebirds, and (4) how many hectares of intertidal shorebird habitats1 have been converted into shrimp ponds."
Total funding for this project exceeds 500 thousand dollars, with $125,934 provided by a recent Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, $122,000 from AQUASIS, $115,770 from the Department of Biology/Marine Invertebrates Laboratory at the Federal University of Ceará, and $140,300 from the Department of Geography/Laboratory of Digital Cartography, also at the Federal University of Ceará.
The 18 months of research and monitoring supported by these funds, will start with 12 months of intensive effort to quantify shorebirds abundance and species composition at three sites on the coast of Ceará, Carlos said.
"Preliminary surveys have indicated that intertidal mudflats and salt flats are used by foraging shorebirds, such as Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres) and Whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus). Flocks of poorly understood species such as the Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus) have been recently observed in Ceará, and the threatened Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) has been mist netted in the neighboring Rio Grande do Norte State. Several sightings of color-banded shorebirds with U.S. dark-green flags have also confirmed the presence of North American migrants in Ceará, especially Red Knots (Calidris canutus rufa) and Ruddy Turnstones.
Whimbrels at Ceará.
Red Knots at Ceará.
"Of the 20 migratory shorebirds recorded for Ceará (60% of the species known to Brazil), nine are of high conservation concern. Breeding populations of these species include the American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus), Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) and Wilson's Plover (Charadrius wilsonia). The following species are priorities, with an asterisk (*) indicating more abundant species: *Black-bellied Plover, American Golden-Plover, *Semipalmated Plover, *Greater Yellowlegs, *Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, *Willet, Spotted Sandpiper, *Whimbrel, *Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot, *Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, *Stilt Sandpiper, and *Short-billed Dowitcher.
Wilson's Plover chick at Ceará.
Ruddy Turnstones, including one which is banded.
"In northeast Brazil progress towards recognizing the significance of salt flats for these birds and formulating appropriate conservation strategies has been hampered by the lack of baseline information," Carlos said. "The need for this data is heightened by the ever increasing pressures for shrimp farm development in the region. Unfortunately, shorebirds are some of the least studied birds in northeast Brazil and available information consists mainly of a few check-lists and short-term surveys.
"The loss of mangrove-associated habitats, for example, salt flats, remains unrecognized as a threat to coastal ecological processes including long-distance shorebird migrations. Coastal wetlands like salt flats are being targeted for development because they are considered barren wastelands, are 'non-mangrove,' and are not clearly protected by national legislation in most countries. In the Neotropics the role of these wetlands as stopover areas for migratory birds remains ignored or unknown by resource managers in most countries."
Impacts to habitats in the area are the primary cause for concern, according to Carlos.
Shrimp farm among mangroves.
"Virtually all estuaries of Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte are impacted by the construction and operation of shrimp ponds. As a result of its rapid expansion, especially since 1998, extensive areas of mangroves and salt flats have been converted into ponds bringing about environmental degradation and social conflict. In Brazil, appropriate conditions for marine shrimp aquaculture occur in its northeast region, which accounts for more than 96% of the country's output. The State of Ceará alone accounted for almost 30% of this production in 2002. The activity has expanded so fast in the last 10 years that the total area of ponds in operation is now unknown, and worse, may be grossly underestimated by 'official statistics.' According to the Brazilian Association of Shrimp Growers there are approximately 16,000 hectares of ponds but this appears to be a gross underestimation, and this figure could be 2-3 times greater."
Shrimp was formerly consumed locally, but is now a major agricultural export, Carlos said. "The states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and Bahia are thought to be the largest shrimp consumers in Brazil. Up to 1999 most of the shrimp produced in Brazil was sold within the country. However, since the devaluation of Brazilian currency in 1999, exports have increase rapidly. Shrimp in Brazil has been mainly exported to the U.S.A. and Japan, but more recently exports to Europe increased, with Spain, France and the United Kingdom being the largest markets."
In June 2007, AQUASIS co-hosted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an "Atlantic Flyway Migratory Birds and Shrimp Farming" workshop to evaluate the impact of shrimp farming on Atlantic flyway migratory birds.
"Brazilian and U.S. participants met in Ceará to discuss the conservation challenge posed by the rapid growth of the shrimp aquaculture industry along the northeast coast of Brazil and the transformation of coastal wetlands that are important as stopover and/or wintering sites for migratory shorebirds," Carlos said. "After discussions, there was a common understanding that coastal habitat conversion is a critical shorebird conservation issue, especially where the occupation of coastal habitats is occurring at an alarming rate."
Workshop participants said "Urgent attention should be directed to the coastal migratory corridor of Piauí, Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte, since this is a semi-arid coastline with fragile hypersaline estuaries that present low food availability during the dry season, and the increasing conversion of coastal habitats may be creating an approximately 1000 kilometer-long gap and bottleneck for migratory birds in the Western Hemisphere Atlantic Flyway."
During the workshop, it was suggested that remote sensing techniques would be useful to identify trends and to monitor coastal ecosystems, especially concerning the growth in shrimp pond areas.
The current project will make significant use of this methodology to analyze land use.
"In parallel with the shorebird research," Carlos said, "remote sensing will be used to determine how many hectares of intertidal shorebird habitats have been converted into shrimp ponds in the past twenty years along 700 km of Ceará coastline and portions of the neighboring State of Rio Grande do Norte. The team of the Laboratory of Digital Cartography will produce a cartographic representation of the evolution of the occupation of intertidal habitats potentially available for shorebirds since 1998, using Landsat and Ikonos satellite imagery. Besides updating information on shrimp pond area, we will also quantify other forms of occupation that may be reducing the availability of shorebird habitats (saltworks, urban expansion, tourism equipments) and mapping the remaining viable intertidal habitats like mudflats, salt flats, sandbars, tidal deltas, and mangroves. In the estuarine systems associated with the sampling areas a detailed mapping of land cover will be performed in a yearly basis since 1996, when shrimp farming boomed in northeast Brazil.
Carlos provided some additional comments regarding the dramatic increase in shrimp farming, and how its ongoing development is changing coastal wetlands:
"Society has progressively experienced the paradox of an unprecedented increase in understanding and awareness about environmental problems alongside a seemingly growing incapacity by governments and society to successfully address them. The precarious state of global fisheries, denudation of forests, and climate change, are examples that have received widespread press coverage, but coastal shrimp aquaculture is an emerging issue that despite of its appalling ecological and social costs, has received less attention and only apathetic concern.
"The prospects for high profits and rapid return on investments, coupled with high uncertainty in the industry's future have promoted a modality of resource use that seeks maximum profits in the least time. Such approach undermines planning and disregards the benefits of gradual adaptive, harmonious growth, surrenders long-term benefits and undermines the industry's own ultimate sustainability. The current surge and increasing momentum of growth of coastal aquaculture on a global scale, and the sweeping changes that would be needed to make it sustainable and environmentally compatible makes it highly unlikely that changes in its exploitation modality will take place in the short-term.
"This becomes apparent given the reluctance of the industry so far to self-regulate, and the continued willingness of financial institutions and governments to keep on supporting a manifestly unsustainable modality of development in spite of calls for ecosystem and sustainable management in newly developed international environmental law instruments and declarations. In the Americas these include the 'Western Hemisphere Convention,' the 'Ramsar Wetlands Convention' and the 'Convention on Biological Diversity.' These instruments are not mere eloquent expressions of general aspirations; they are legally binding and impose performance obligations that include the development of legal and institutional frameworks to ensure that national laws and policies are compatible with the obligations undertaken, as well as for improving standards of compliance. As an example, the legal commitments accepted by Ramsar's parties involve non-site specific (applying to all wetlands), site specific (related to listed sites) and a third obligation that involves engagement in international cooperation for the coordinated management of shared resources such as migratory species. These treaties, conventions and declarations reflect the growing global consensus that all States and the international community have a keen interest in the conservation of wild species and the habitats in which they live.
"Unfortunately, this international framework has not been able to cope with the explosive growth of aquaculture and its occupation of coastal wetlands; the conversion of these critical transition zones remains essentially unabated and unregulated. Particularly neglected are its effects on little understood but frail coastal ecological processes, or the potential long-term impacts of widespread degradation on the function of the narrow coastal critical transition zones from which millions of local people depend for their livelihoods. Also neglected is the potential irreversible impact that the loss of coastal wetlands may have on long-distance shorebird migrations; an irreplaceable global ecological phenomena. Furthermore, there is little recognition that the degradation of coastal areas by aquaculture represents the erosion of critical natural capital that undermines sustainability.
"Aquaculture will not disappear, as shrimp remains a prized commodity in the global market, but may persist as a 'proliferate-and-run' business causing widespread social, ecologic and economic turmoil. This pattern of resource depletion is best exemplified in Ceará by the Spiny Lobster fisheries, where unsustainable practices and lack of regulations led to over fishing and a total collapse after 40 years of exploitation. Today, most industrial lobster enterprises are shifting to shrimp farming, adapting the lobster processing plants to process farmed shrimp, and reproducing this unsustainable model based on the exhaustion of natural resources, with the aggravation of the occupation of keystone coastal ecosystems like mangroves.
"It is likely that ultimately more educated consumers will make market decisions that will force the industry to adopt an environmentally friendly approach by shunning products from certain producing countries. Unfortunately until that time, social problems and environmental damage to sensitive systems and a lengthy legacy of irreparable damages must be expected if prompt actions are not taken by governments and the regional and global financial institutions that fuel its growth to regulate its development."
AQUASIS (Associação de Pesquisa e Preservação de Ecossistemas Aquáticos) is a nonprofit, non-governmental organization that has been actively involved in resource conservation since its inception in 1994.
The organization, Carlos said, "conducts conservation processes (not just projects) to deal with some of the most pressing environmental issues in the State of Ceará and neighboring areas. Our focus is on endangered species and their habitats, and we have been working with four Critically Endangered taxa in our region: the birds Araripe Manakin (Antilophia bokermanni) and Grey-breasted Parakeet (Pyrrhura griseipectus); the Caatinga Red-handed Howling Monkey (Alouatta ululata); and the Antillean Manatee (Thrichechus manatus).
"After conducting preliminary surveys in the past two years with migratory shorebirds, we have enhanced our understanding about the importance of our coastline for these birds and the pressing needs to preserve some critical stopover sites.
The group has "a team to devise strategies, establish long-term partnerships, and implement projects for the conservation of shorebirds and their habitats. In this sense, we expect to conduct a long-term process to gather information and use it to protect some critical habitats, and this proposal is part of a continuing strategy we intend to conduct in our region."
"The results of the current project," Carlos said, "could trigger a second workshop to evaluate the impacts of shrimp farming on shorebird habitats, based on the updated data and the strategies proposed."
"AQUASIS has also been conducting education and outreach activities along the coast of Ceará for more than a decade; during this period we have created a network of collaborators in coastal communities. Although this project does not have specific outreach components, our local collaborators - or environmental agents, as we call them - will be taking part of the research and monitoring activities, as part of our training and local capacity building policies. In two of the study sites our local partners have already been taking part of conservation projects related to shorebird monitoring and protected area creation and implementation."