Can fish farmers and rare birds coexist?

Farmers in Tianjin have been scaring away hungry migratory birds with firecrackers, but better management could provide a solution
<p>Volunteers release a rescued oriental white stork at a nature reserve in Heilongjiang (Image: Alamy)</p>

Volunteers release a rescued oriental white stork at a nature reserve in Heilongjiang (Image: Alamy)

Volunteer Wang Jingguo has been on patrol since late October, watching over the oriental storks that break their migratory journey in Tianjin.

The oriental stork, sometimes known as the “giant panda of the birds”, is a Class 1 protected species in China. Every year, hundreds fly south from their breeding grounds in Heilongjiang and along the Ussuri River. In about mid-November, they reach the wetlands of Tianjin for a brief rest and to fatten up for the long journey ahead to the wetlands of the lower Yangtze basin and southern China where they will overwinter.

This year, the storks arrived a fortnight before Wang Jingguo had expected, and in greater numbers. By early-November, over 1,300 had arrived outside Tianjin’s three main wetland reserves, Qilihai, Beidagang and Caofeidian. That represents more than half of the global population of a bird the IUCN lists as “endangered”.

The birds have been feeding on fish from commercial farms around the reserves, leading farmers to scare them off with firecrackers, and to several news reports on the commotion. In response, experts are calling for better management. They say wetlands managers should keep some fish ponds specifically for migratory birds to feed from, and that each season water levels should be lowered to suit the birds.

The current situation is suboptimal for both humans and birds. Wang Jingguo points out that some of the storks have not been able to feed well during their journey and are now extremely weak. If they are chased away from food sources in Tianjin, they may not be able to store up enough fat for the remainder of their travels. “If they don’t get help, they’ll starve,” he told the Beijing News.

In recent years, conflict between locals and birds has worsened in Tianjin’s Ninghe district. How to establish nature reserves that will change that relationship to one of co-existence is a problem for the municipal government and volunteers – one also being faced elsewhere in China.

Reserves failing

Wang Jingguo has been keeping an eye on the oriental storks for years. He says it has become common in the last two to three years for farmers to use firecrackers. “It was quite predictable that this would happen. The three wetland reserves aren’t doing anything to protect the storks.”

The birds are also at risk from poisoning and hunting. In 2012, over 100 migratory birds including 22 oriental storks, were killed when poachers used pesticides to try and catch wild ducks and other prey to sell as food. Wang says there is a persistent poaching problem, with oriental storks poisoned every year.

He told China Dialogue that the oriental storks usually get enough to eat in the reserves and rarely “steal” food from elsewhere.

The reasons for the change are complex. Wang explained that in the past the reserves leased out portions of the wetland to commercial fish farmers, and did not allow the use of firecrackers, or of chemicals to clean the ponds once fish had been harvested. That ensured a source of food for migratory birds within the reserves. But the last few years have seen reserves move to reduce aquaculture and restore the wetlands. With commercial activity no longer permitted, ponds formerly used for aquaculture have gone uncared for and no new juvenile fish have been delivered to them.

A flock of oriental white storks forage during their southward migration at Caofeidian wetland in Tangshan, north China's Hebei Province
Oriental white storks foraging at Caofeidian wetland in Hebei this November, during their southerly migration (Image: Alamy)

Water level is also a problem. Wang Jingguo told China Dialogue that as a wading bird the oriental stork must stand to eat, ideally in water 10-20 cm deep. But some reserves are required to retain water for river basin management and so levels are usually quite high, with no reductions made when migratory birds arrive. This means the oriental stork cannot stay long.

“These three wetlands have been refuelling points for the oriental stork for centuries, a vital part of their migratory route. If problems arise here they may fail to fly any further, and the species could go extinct,” Wang Jingguo said, during a fundraising video.

Why aren’t the reserves able to meet the needs of such an important species? Some say management is a problem.

At a 28 October seminar attended by officials from Tianjin’s planning and natural resources bureau and forestry bureau, as well as reserve managers and conservation volunteers, a lack of funding was cited as a  reason for degradation of the wetlands; this was partly because the reserve management bodies could not use state resources for profit, so they could not run aquaculture operations within the reserves.

Tianjin’s reserves just talk abstractly about protecting ‘biodiversity’. But that should mean protecting the oriental stork in this particular case.”

According to Wang Jingguo, the root of the problem lies with managers, who should rethink the purpose of aquaculture within the reserves. In the past this was done for profit – now, it should be done in order to feed migratory birds such as the oriental stork. The reserves have not yet realised this. “Tianjin’s reserves just talk abstractly about protecting ‘biodiversity’. But that should mean protecting the oriental stork in this particular case.”

Zhou Haixiang, a member of the Chinese National Committee for Man and the Biosphere, agrees that management of the reserves is the issue. He told China Dialogue that if the aim of the reserves is to help conserve migratory birds, water levels should be lowered to an appropriate level prior to their arrival. But it currently appears the reserves are intended to retain water or serve as tourist attractions – in both cases, higher water levels are preferable. “Certain conditions are required for coexistence. Key is whether or not managers want to protect wildlife.”

Wang Songlin, chair of the Qingdao Marine Conservation Society, thinks reserve managers should clarify the purpose of the reserves. If it is to preserve a particular ecology then, in theory, human intervention should be banned. But if it is to protect large fish-eating migratory birds such as the oriental stork, then they should act to meet the birds’ needs – including supplementing sources of food and adjusting water levels.

Bird canteens

There are places Tianjin could look to, such as the Mai Po wetland reserve in Hong Kong, Beijing’s Yanqing Wild Duck Lake reserve, and the Jingxin wetlands in Huichun, Jilin. All these locations have adopted new management approaches to allow coexistence of humans and birds.

Hong Kong’s Mai Po reserve is one of the earliest examples of wetland and migratory bird conservation in China. According to the WWF, the reserve is an important habitat for endangered migratory birds such as the Saunders’s gull and black-faced spoonbill, with many birds actually attracted to the area by agricultural and fishing activity. In the 1980s, local fish farmers abandoned a traditional method of shrimp farming, which used embankments surrounding stands of mangrove trees to create ponds. In response, the WWF’s Hong Kong branch raised funds to purchase the wetlands. Some of the ponds were rebuilt to better meet the needs of the birds, and every 10-15 years they are dredged to ensure shrimp numbers are maintained. Water levels are actively managed in line with bird numbers and the tides, to provide the birds with their ideal habitats. Wang Songlin told China Dialogue that the Tianjin reserves could learn from this approach, invite bird and wetland experts to improve their conservation work and have the government allow licensed aquaculture, jointly run by farmers and NGOs, within the reserve. “I think NGOs have an important role to play, they have knowledge and experience acquired from many years of studying birdlife, are good at implementing conservation plans, and can obtain funding. They can complement the government’s own work.”

Did you know?

As storks lack vocal organs, they communicate by clacking their bills.

Beijing’s Yanqing Wild Duck Lake reserve, meanwhile, is a new trial project being run by the Shan Shui Conservation Centre. With support from the Beijing Gardening and Greening Bureau, Shan Shui is working with Wild Duck Park and local farmers’ cooperatives, employing farmers to grow food for migratory birds on a former car park. The wages are paid for by the government. This may appear to go against the principle of reducing interventions, but in fact it avoids the need for bigger interventions later on. As project official Zhang Shen told China Dialogue, the designation of Wild Duck Lake as a nature reserve meant farmers had been relocated, leading the common crane to seek food from neighbouring fields. Now, with a bird “canteen” within the reserve, the birds are better protected. And in 2013 a research team, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Zoology, looking into how friendly the reserve was to birds, started planting organic rice in the Jingxin wetlands in Huichun, Jilin, both to feed birds and help increase local income.

“There is a long history of agriculture on the plains of northern China, and migratory birds have learned to coexist with humans. So we should manage reserves in line with the existing conditions and needs, rather than simply chasing people out,” said Zhang Shen. “Nature reserves are there to serve wild animals, and in the right places farmland ecologies can be important for conserving biodiversity.”

Ecological compensation can come from both government and businesses

Coexistence of people and birds must be the long-term aim for the Tianjin reserves, but feeding birds and providing economic help for fishers is the more urgent task.

Policy decisions take time, and to date no environmental compensation proposals have been made. At the seminar on 28 October, some officials spoke about the difficulties of such schemes: it is hard to evaluate losses, because it is not just protected species like the oriental stork that take fish from aquaculture ponds.

Without any policy in place, Wang Jingguo’s team of volunteers has had to turn to public fundraising websites. They use donations to buy juvenile fish to place in a nearby aquaculture pond, and have successfully attracted the oriental stork to feed there, rather than at other ponds. But it is hard to know what the ongoing costs of the operation will be, and the farmers who have lost fish have not received compensation.

The local electricity firm has also reduced power bills for those aquaculture ponds that do not chase away the storks – thanks to Wang’s team getting in touch.

Nature reserves are there to serve wild animals, and in the right places farmland ecologies can be important for conserving biodiversity.

Terry Townshend, an advisor to the Paulson Institute, thinks businesses as well as government could fund environmental compensation. He told China Dialogue: “One of the things that government can regulate for, maybe with new laws, is to require companies to analyse their footprint on the environment and to implement measures to offset the damage. This is the type of policy that is likely to come in in the future, if we get any chance to reach the biodiversity targets.”

In Jiangxi, an ecological compensation mechanism is in place to encourage fishers and commercial lake managers to take part in the conservation of migratory birds. According to reports, the Nanji National Wetlands Park in the Poyang Lake area – which is really a web of thousands of lakes – is rewarding managers according to the number and conservation status of birds on their lakes. Local government has also provided funds for the park to reserve some lakes as refuges for migratory birds once the fish have been harvested from them. And in important habitats it has also reached agreements with local fishers to control water levels and stop fishing when necessary, and for lake managers to ensure some food is left for birds.

In 2018, Jiangxi paid a 1,000 yuan (US$150) subsidy per mu (666 square metres) for the Nanji National Wetlands Park and the Duchang Migratory Bird Reserve to each convert 1,000 mu of farmland back to wetland, in an attempt to restore their appearance and ecological roles.

Zhang Shen stressed to China Dialogue that processes like this need to be carefully considered. Humans do take up a lot of space in the ecosystem, he says, but the government needs to ask if removing that influence is actually beneficial. “For example, some places in northern China are restoring farmland and aquaculture back to forestry, but this means areas suitable for migratory birds become unsuitable, and that doesn’t aid biodiversity.”

Gan Xiaojing, conservation program manager at the Paulson Institute, agrees, telling China Dialogue that the loss of much of the habitat for migratory waterfowl is irreversible, but farmland and aquaculture ponds can serve as sources of food. “It’s hard nowadays to find a natural coastal wetland suitable for migratory birds, with supratidal, intertidal and subtidal zones. So when the tide covers the entire shore, birds fly to nearby farms and fish farms, and some species rely on agriculture for their food. It would be a huge blow to the birds if those are then converted to forestry or forest parks.”