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A great day for the Western Sandpiper

April 10th, 2013 · by Michael Sutton

When you come across a Western Sandpiper on the beaches of California, as I did last weekend in Big Sur, it might strike you as an unspectacular bird.  After all, it’s one of a dozen or more types of brownish shorebirds darting up and down the sand. But its drab ubiquity is deceptive; the Western Sandpiper is an amazing species. And I’m mindful of it because it’s celebrating something of a victory these days. (photo by USFWS)

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Conservation on Private Lands

January 15th, 2013 · by Michael Sutton

I was up in Butte County near Chico a few weeks ago – I’ve been up there quite a bit in the last few weeks meeting with Audubon colleagues and supporters. It’s a fascinating part of the state, particularly if you’re used to thinking of California in terms of its beaches, mountains or deserts. Much of this part of the state is in private hands – rice farms, walnut groves, duck clubs, ranches, etc. Agriculture has largely displaced what once were extensive wetlands in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys—over the years we’ve lost something like 90 percent of the natural habitat for water birds there. As a result, 30 years ago our waterfowl populations were at all-time lows due to loss of both nesting areas and migratory rest stops. Waterfowl were largely confined to public lands such as national wildlife refuges and state game preserves.

Today, however, the picture is very different. What’s amazing to see as you fly over this checkerboard network of private lands in the Sacramento Valley is just how much conservation is going on out there. Flooded agriculture has replaced many of the wetlands lost to development, and some farmers and ranchers have restored wetlands to their natural state. A lot of this conservation is supported by government incentives or instigated by conservation groups such as Audubon. Our Working Lands program is partnering with hundreds of rice growers and dairymen in the Central Valley to encourage them to use bird-friendly farming practices. These pioneering landowners feel a deep connection to the land and wildlife around them, and yearn for a piece of California as it used to be.

As a result, waterfowl have bounced back, proving that habitat conservation coupled with informed wildlife management really works. Today most species of ducks and geese in the Pacific Flyway are thriving, thanks in part to the work of landowners who care enough to partner with groups like Audubon and the California Waterfowl Association. Bag limits for hunters have more than doubled, and hundreds of people flock to the annual Snow Goose Festival sponsored by the Audubon chapter in Chico. In the conservation business, where success stories are sometimes difficult to find, this is downright inspiring!

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Tags: Pacific Flyway · Working lands

Just what are we celebrating? Or, Celebrating the demise of an oceanic sportscar

January 15th, 2013 · by Michael Sutton

Earlier this month, I read a piece in the news about the record purchase of a single bluefin tuna in Tokyo for $1.76 million. As many of you know, I came to Audubon from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where I led the organization’s ocean conservation efforts. Even though I spend more time these days thinking about birds than fish, the sad story of the bluefin tuna remains important to me.

Most of us just think of tuna as food – something we just find in a can – but a bluefin tuna actually is one of the ocean’s most amazing creatures. A single bluefin can grow to nine feet in length, weigh more than 1,000 pounds, and reach speeds of up to 30 miles an hour. We used to call it the “Porsche of the Oceans.” But due to overfishing, the bluefin is rapidly disappearing. And if it does go away, what will that mean for our oceans? After all, the ocean isn’t a patchwork, it’s a continuum. You can’t just pull one thing out and expect everything else to remain the same. That’s especially true of a top predator like the bluefin tuna.

The buyer, owner of a Japanese sushi restaurant, said he paid the record price to celebrate the opening of the bluefin fishing season. But celebrating scarcity is exceptionally risky, dangerous not only for our oceans but for the very industry that values bluefin tuna over all other seafood. Sushi restaurants—indeed the entire seafood industry—need healthy oceans to thrive, and paying record prices for a seriously depleted species will only fuel overfishing and hasten the demise of the magnificent bluefin and its cousins.

For more than 20 years, I’ve worked for the conservation of bluefin tuna and other top marine predators like swordfish and sharks. We’ve won a few battles, like the bill we helped enact to ban the trade in shark fins in California last year. But I fear we’re losing the fight to save these species from our own greed. If they disappear from our oceans, can other species be far behind? Unless we’re able to rein in the industry that values scarcity over abundance, the Catch of the Day may soon be jellyfish rather than tuna.

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Tags: Fish · Pacific Flyway

The Тихий Flyway

September 28th, 2012 · by Michael Sutton

Audubon staff in Alaska like to call that state the “Mother of All Flyways.” After all, the billions of birds that breed in the Arctic each summer migrate not only down the Pacific Flyway, but to all four flyways in North America and several in Asia. Scientists have identified more Important Bird Areas in Alaska than in any other state. But contrary to popular belief, Alaska is not the northern terminus of the Pacific Flyway. That honor belongs to Russia, which is why, in 1976, the Soviet Union signed a migratory bird treaty with the United States, joining Mexico, Japan, and Great Britain on behalf of Canada. This summer, I had the opportunity to visit the Russian Far East for the first time, and it was an eye-opener.

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The Rufous Factor

September 28th, 2012 · by Michael Sutton

One morning last spring, as I was trying to decide whether to leave my job at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and join Audubon, my daughter Callie asked to go birding. She was only six years old at the time, so I thought this was a good sign. We grabbed a pair of binoculars and stepped out on to our front porch in Carmel Valley.

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