Day Seven (1/19/08) – Conservation Inspiration on Midway
by Dave Johnston -- January 20th, 2008
John Klavitter of the USFWS and his collaborators are running some amazing conservation programs for seabirds on Midway. Their successes are inspirational and provide hope for anyone working to conserve small populations of endangered animals.
On our first morning here, USFWS Refuge Biologist John Klavitter gave us an introduction and orientation to Midway, but he also provided a broad overview of the conservation programs that are ongoing at Midway. Since that morning I’ve been thinking a lot about the utility of strong “intervention” conservation efforts and how to balance the risks associated with manipulating small populations of animals against the possible huge conservation gains that may arise. The striking thing about the case studies that John described for Midway was the incredible success that has been achieved in this remote place, despite the funding requirements and logistical problems here.
John described an innovative acoustic playback and decoy project designed to establish a colony of short-tailed albatross on Eastern Island. Short-tailed albatrosses are an endangered species, with their main breeding colony on Torishima Island off Japan. In 2000, one short-tailed albatross took up residence on Eastern Island here on Midway during the breeding season. By “installing” a number of albatross decoys and playing short-tailed albatross sounds the USFWS has now attracted a second animal. These two appear to get along quite well – dancing and socializing – and the initial pilgrim has clearly abandoned the rather unresponsive decoys for some real action. This is a huge step forward considering the vast majority of these birds breed on a single Japanese island threatened by a rather active volcano.
This playback approach is also useful for other birds that breed on Midway. For example, through some innovative re-engineering of marine debris, the FWS folks out here on Midway have created crush-resistant petrel burrows and lured Bonin, Tristram’s and Bulwer’s petrels to their locations by playing back their sounds with a co-located weather-resistant speaker system. The petrels find these “prefab” burrows A-OK and some happily take up residence.
Probably the most inspirational conservation success that John described is that of the Laysan duck (also known as the Laysan teal). This is one of the most endangered duck species in the world. In 2004 and 2005, approximately 40 Laysan ducks were brought to Midway from their home on Laysan Island to establish a second colony – some insurance in case anything goes horribly wrong on Laysan. The USFWS created several small “wetlands” on Sand Island at Midway that Laysan ducks have occupied, and they are well established now. As well, the FWS folks have been busy “creating” these types of habitats for Laysan ducks on Eastern Island. Using some heavy earth-moving equipment, they have excavated ponds and planted native sedges around them. Two years after reforming these portions of Eastern Island they have small functioning wetlands dominated by native plants – and strong colonies of Laysan ducks are using them.
As a working marine conservation biologist who focuses on marine mammal issues, the success rate described above is encouraging to say the least. It is often so hard to gain traction on the issues that I deal with – like by-catch of false killer whales. The interactions rates are so low, the population so small and the area within which these harmful interactions occur is so large the problem seems almost insurmountable. But John’s talk has rejuvenated me in a way, and seeing the successes achieved by he and his collaborators gives me some hope that I too might succeed in efforts to conserve cetacean stocks in Hawaii and elsewhere in the Pacific Islands Region.