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Mixing exploitation and conservation: A recipe for disaster

Most governments around the world set conservation policy based on the assumption that resource exploitation and species protection can co-exist in the same place. These policies have led to Orwellian "marine protected areas" that host commercial fishing operations, leading one to wonder who's protecting whom. A new study reveals the danger of this approach--showing that exploitation has led to a decline of a seabird species by 80% in the Dutch Wadden Sea--and concludes that it's time to let protection mean protection.

For decades, the Dutch government sanctioned mechanical cockle dredging in three-fourths of the intertidal flats of the Wadden Sea, a natural monument protected under two intergovernmental treaties. Before suction dredging began in the 1960s, an estimated 2,000 tons of cockles were hand-harvested from the reserve each year. In 1989, the high-pressure, motor-driven water pumps used in suction dredging sucked up close to 80,000 tons of cockles. By 2004, the Dutch government decided the environmental costs were too great and stopped the practice. Jan van Gils and colleagues investigated the ecological impacts of commercial cockle dredging on intertidal ecosystems by studying a long-distance migrant shorebird that dines principally on cockles, the red knot (Calidris canutus islandica). Up to 50% of the global red knot population uses the Dutch Wadden Sea at some point during their annual cycle.

Red knots are exquisitely adapted to their lifestyle. They have a pressure-sensitive bill that senses hard objects buried in the sand and a shell-crushing gizzard to accommodate the birds' penchant for swallowing their catch whole. They even have a flexible digestive system that minimizes the energy costs of flying up to 16,000 kilometers between their arctic breeding grounds and winter homes in Europe and the tropics; their gizzard expands and contracts to balance daily food intake and energy needs. To determine the effects of dredging on th
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Contact: Natalie Bouaravong
press@plos.org
415-568-3445
Public Library of Science
13-Nov-2006


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