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Protect mudflats, mangroves for migratory birds, say experts

Changes in surface elevation at Sungei Buloh could bring about a change in the mangrove composition and perhaps a loss in mangroves, an expert says.

SINGAPORE: Parts of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, an important stopover for migratory birds, are sinking and this could be due to the Causeway and the Kranji reservoir limiting the amount of sediments deposited at the reserve. However, some of the nature reserve’s mudflats have increased in size, preliminary findings collected since 2011 by a National University of Singapore geography don showed.

While more data is needed over a longer period of time, changes in surface elevation at Sungei Buloh could bring about a change in the mangrove composition and perhaps a loss in mangroves, said Assistant Professor Dan Friess at the Symposium on Intertidal Conservation in Southeast Asia yesterday.

The National Parks Board, which oversees the reserve, declined to provide specific measurements found so far. However, the reserve’s deputy director, Ms Sharon Chan, said it already takes into consideration the rise in sea levels – parts of the reserve consist of ponds where water levels can be managed – to expose mud areas for the birds to feed.

Singapore is one of 22 countries including Russia, China and Australia that lie along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, an annual migration path for 50 million birds from more than 200 species that spans 10,000km.

Experts at the symposium noted numerous threats such as land reclamation to flyway habitats, and the collapse in populations of some migrant shorebirds. The red knot’s numbers in Moreton Bay in Australia, for instance, have declined by 9 per cent annually for 20 years – a “collapse of colossal proportions”, said Dr Richard Fuller of the University of Queensland.

However, the efforts of one country to conserve birds are not sufficient. “You have to make sure the birds are conserved all the way throughout the flyway and at the critical bottlenecks,” said Mr Spike Millington, chief executive of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership.

Dr Fuller’s research found that migratory bird species more reliant on the Yellow Sea region in East Asia, which has undergone extensive coastal development, were the ones declining more quickly. To conserve shorebird species, authorities and scientists could identify and protect the most important sites, and identify which areas would cause the least loss in biodiversity if developed, he said.

Associate Professor Lye Lin Heng of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Environmental Law at the National University of Singapore said the Republic lacks laws to protect its shores and marine ecosystems. Effective management of wetlands requires the countries collaborate as migratory species do not respect geographic or political boundaries, she added.

Some have called for the preservation of intertidal areas to protect against storm surges and the impact of climate change, but Assistant Professor Adam Switzer of Nanyang Technological University’s Division of Earth Sciences cautioned against the idea that mangroves protect coastal communities from big storm surges, as they provide little or no defence against storm surges and tsunamis more than 3m high.

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