By Lucy Beagley
In 2015, Chris Packham, the British naturalist, launched his crusade against the ‘Malta massacre on migration’. In doing so he brought the referendum on whether Maltese hunters should be allowed to shoot turtle doves and quails in the spring shooting season to the attention of the UK media. Despite the best efforts of Packham and organisations such as BirdLife Malta, the ‘Yes’ campaign won by a slim margin of 50.4% so this controversial spring shooting remains. The European Commission’s 1979 Wild Birds Directive bans member states from hunting wild birds during spring as birds are en route to their breeding grounds. However, Maltese governments successively implement a derogation (exemption) allowing the killing of these two rapidly declining birds. This begs the questions, when spring shooting is outlawed in all other EU countries, why is Malta the exception? Why should the activities of a country of less than 500,000 citizens concern us? And a year on from the referendum what is the current situation in Malta?
Malta’s derogation to the Wild Birds Directive is instated on the basis that hunting in the autumn season does not provide a ‘satisfactory solution’ to uphold this strong Maltese tradition. Therefore, for the derogation to be justified you would expect fewer birds to be shot in autumn than spring. However, recent figures show that the level of hunting in autumn in fact exceeds that of spring. Comparisons of hunter’s bag statistics show that on average 2.5 times more turtle doves and 14.3 times more quails are shot in autumn than in spring. Therefore there are sufficient birds for hunters to shoot in autumn and so the autumn season does provide a satisfactory solution. This shows that the grounds and legality for this derogation is very questionable.
There are 10,000 licensed hunters in Malta but the quotas are set at 5,000 turtle doves and 5,000 quail that may be shot. So in theory, each hunter is only expected and allowed to take one bird during the two week-long season. Importantly, these quotas are set based on the number of birds recorded shot in the autumn shooting season. Therefore, quotas aren't based on annual mortality rates and don’t reflect the global population sizes. Most worryingly, these figures are reported by the hunters themselves. Hunters are inherently bias to underreport their catches to allow them to catch more making the figures unreliable. Lack of accurate and complete data not only makes it difficult to establish the true impact of hunting but it also hampers the ability of governments and organisations to implement policy and set priorities.
While this issue has permeated the political sphere of Malta, it extends beyond, to the whole of the Mediterranean region. Over-exploitation is one of main threats to bird populations globally, with the extent of hunting across the Mediterranean becoming an increasing concern. Recent estimates of the number of birds illegally killed across the Mediterranean regions is between 11-36 million individuals. This level of hunting is simply unsustainable and poses a significant international conservation problem. As the Mediterranean country with the highest estimated number of birds hunted per km2, Malta can act as an important case study. Compared to North Africa and Italy, Malta may be a small part of the problem but it is an important part nonetheless. Tackling this issue in one region will not suffice, these birds need to be protected across their migratory route. The recent reclassification of the turtle dove from ‘least concerned’ to ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) makes the need to reassess quotas and the terms of Malta’s EU derogation even more important.
Despite this IUCN reclassification, the 2016 spring shooting season went ahead, albeit with lowered quotas. However, when pressed, the Maltese government could not provide evidence of the scientific basis on which these new quotas were set. More importantly, at the end of April 2016, the IUCN directly weighed in on the argument. The IUCN announced that they had written a letter to EU Commissioner for Environment and Maritime Affair, asking the Commissioner to impose a suspension on spring hunting in Malta and advising that the suspension should be maintained until the Turtle Dove shows signs of recovery and until its hunting can be proven to be sustainable. The involvement of such a major conservation organization has the potential to create pressure and drive change. Whether the spring shooting season will be opened in 2017 remains to be seen.
Ultimately, in order to progress Malta needs strong support and legislation from the government and better supervision of their derogation from the EU. Most importantly there needs to be systematic monitoring systems in place in order to set accurate quotas based on empirical evidence. In order to reconcile conservation with tradition there needs to be more public education and engagement. A focus on educating and inspiring the current and future generations to change their traditions and outlook from one of exploitation to appreciation can help to create a long-term resolution.
A topical debate on climate change and it's impact.
By Calvert Mason
One of the best studied and largest birds in the world, with the largest wing span of any living bird: the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) is vulnerable in the wild according to its ‘Red List’ status. Would you believe that global warming has made the world a more habitable place for this charismatic bird? A 2012 study in albatross reproduction found that more high speed winds in the southern hemisphere, a direct result of climate change, has allowed albatrosses to fatten up (their weight is less of a constraint on flying at higher wind speeds). The fatter the albatross the better its breeding success. In other words chicks are more likely to survive to adulthood in a warming world. This poses the question: is climate change all that bad?
Without sounding like a right-wing fantasist, if we explore the side of the argument we rarely see, climate change doesn’t seem to be as bad as it’s made out to be. Climate change is defined by the Met Office as “a large-scale, long-term shift in the planet’s weather patterns and average temperatures”. There is no denying then that climate change is a real phenomenon. The effects that this has on the world can be categorised as economic, environmental and humanitarian. You’ve probably encountered a lifetime’s worth of media surrounding the negative environmental effects and personally experienced the negative economic or humanitarian effects. But how often does good news get recognised? It is often said that no news is good news, but in this context good news is no news. The good news just doesn’t get the media attention.
There are, maybe not endless, but countless possible ways in which the world can benefit directly from climate change. More plants will be able to grow in previously cold, barren regions: Siberia and Northern Canada for example could become warmer allowing farming communities to infiltrate these higher latitude areas. Less energy will be needed to heat colder parts of the globe. The rate of deaths from diseases directly linked to colder temperatures, the flu for example, could decrease. Animals and plants are predicted to move shift their ranges pole-ward, allowing for sightings of more charismatic, large species previously unseen in areas like mainland Europe. Though the science behind species shift predictions is complex, as movements are incredibly difficult to map, these species migrations are likely to benefit conservation efforts in certain areas. Some predictions from oceanographers even suggests that extreme weather events, such as over-land hurricanes in North America are likely to occur less frequently. Individuals in the global market might even benefit economically from climate change, from increasing scarcity of resources allowing businesses and individuals to earn far more off of them than when resources were readily available.
For environmental enthusiasts the changes in where a species can be found, plant or animal, could provide generous new opportunities for photography, studying and eco-tourism. Beyond that, according to a multitude of research, range shifts in threatened species can open up new areas to conservation efforts. Could this really mean that climate change can aid conservation? Whilst mapping the areas to which species are likely to move is difficult, we can still protect any areas that are likely to be colonised, based on data from other similar species.
Hurricanes are known for wreaking devastation across the Americas, Patricia being the most recent extreme weather event to hit Mexico in late 2015. Climate change predictions have often suggested that extreme weather events would increase in frequency. However, in 2008, a team of oceanographers’ research provided evidence for a fall in the number of hurricanes that would reach land in North America. Without boring with the pages and pages of model predictions from the original paper, the interacting air currents over the Atlantic partnered with rising over land temperatures were modelled. Conclusions were that hurricane development could quite possibly decline. Seemingly then, large populations of people in North America whose livelihoods face constant threat from extreme weather events could be safer under climate change.
Taking a step back into reality, in writing this article I was not attempting to promote an unhealthy environmental lifestyle, but to encourage thought into how the media can bias scientific arguments. Climate change is an area of science that, for anyone other than a researcher, is not particularly well received or well understood. We can all engage with the media’s portrayal of climate change as the Tom to Earth’s Jerry, but we are rarely ever presented with counter arguments; and any good argument has equal representation of both sides.
It all seems a bit too simple, and too ‘in plain sight’ for all the information presented here to be the 100% accurate scientific truth. Though these aren’t false findings, or even twisted tales of the truth told in these studies, actually most long term predictions for climate change effects are negative. Climate change poses huge threats to global conservation efforts and is creating economic pressures to determine which ecosystem, and non-static methods will be successful in the future. In layman’s terms we need methods which predict: where a species will be, whether it can survive there, and then, what it will do there and how that will benefit the area. Scientists refer to this as an ecosystem service based approach.
Having just recently passed the 1°C temperature increase globally, the issue of economic loss to the world far outweighs our individual economic benefits. A 0.2% loss is predicted, following a 2°C temperature rise, to the world gross domestic product. This equates to the last 50 years of temperature rises having caused the loss of an entire year’s worth of economic growth. It also doesn’t take a genius to see that an individual’s gain from resource scarcity will pose long-term negative effects on business.
Yes it is then, too good to be true. The wandering albatross may have benefited thus far, but what does the future hold for it? More recently scientists have studied species survival with changes in habitats (food supply, temperature etc.) via climate change. In the southern ocean, where we find our albatrosses, changes in the environment could have effects on survival in large seabirds and mammals. We see a change in temperature directly affecting baby animal survival, and variation in the ability to respond behaviourally to a changing environment (i.e. to move and colonise new areas) both leading to lower levels of survival. Our albatrosses may not be as lucky as it originally seemed. The same is true for thousands upon thousands of well-studied species worldwide, including the ‘flagship’ of anti-climate change: the polar bear, possibly also for thousands of other species less well studies, and of course humans too.