Although cultures vary across the thousands of miles comprising North and South America, countries within the western hemisphere are constantly connected by sea and air creatures alike as they trek their journeys across hundreds of miles of water and terrain. From the Arctic to Antarctica, migratory species are vital ecological and economic resources shared by the nations and inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere. They are sources of food, means of livelihood and recreation, and they have important biological, cultural, and economic values for society.

Despite their great value, many migratory species are endangered in the Western Hemisphere due to overexploitation, water pollution, the alteration and destruction of their breeding and wintering habitats, illegal trade, use of pesticides and, more recently, climate change. Since migratory species do not recognize borders, the conservation of these species and their habitats and migration routes can only be achieved through joint efforts of the Western Hemisphere’s nations.

No single local organization can take on the entire responsibility of ensuring the protection and conservation of these migratory species’ homes, homes-away-from-homes, and everything in between, wildlife agency directors and other senior officials created the Western Hemisphere Migratory Species Initiative (WHMSI) to facilitate international cooperation. WHMSI is a regular forum for the conservation of migratory wildlife in the hemisphere.

Species that play a vital role in ocean life, such as the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna and the Whale Shark face lower and lower populations due to overfishing. Changing and depleted habitats threaten Costa Rica’s hummingbird, the piping plover, the cerulean warbler, and the Mexican long-tongued bat to name a few species. With their eggs in high demand to both humans and predators, the Roseate tern, loggerhead turtle and green turtle have reached endangered species status. The benefits that these animals provide for their environments abound: pest control, pollination, seed distribution, and balancing the food chains are but a few of their duties.

"I see WHMSI as a forum," said Herbert Raffaele, Chair of the Steering Committee. "It’s an opportunity for countries to collaborate internationally, and to do it in an innovative way where it maximizes impacts on the ground and minimizes the political baggage associated with international cooperation."

Raffaele said that WHMSI works because it's an agreement "in spirit," rather than being a politically-driven signed treaty.

"By using spirit to drive us rather than technical language, we are able to accomplish more and have less politics involved in our discussions," he said.

Richard Huber, Vice Chair of the WHMSI Steering Committee and the Division Chief of Biodiversity and Land Management at the Organization of American States, said that the strength of WHMSI is that it ties together 34 member states of the Organization of American States under the common objective of protecting migratory species and their habitats.

“It’s all about collaboration and coordination when you want to get things done,” Huber said.

WHMSI aims to expand awareness and political support throughout the hemisphere through helping countries conserve and manage migratory wildlife, improving communication on common conservation issues and informed decision making, and providing a forum for identifying and discussing emerging issues.

Steering Committee  
WHMSI’s unique interim steering committee, made up of representatives from governments, non-governmental organizations and interested international treaties and conventions includes representatives from:

  • American Bird Conservancy
  • Birdlife InternationalColombia
  • Convention on Migratory Species
  • Costa Rica
  • Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea TurtlesOrganization of American States
  • Protocol on Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife of the Wider Caribbean
  • Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance
  • Saint Lucia
  • the United States (Chair)
  • Uruguay
  • Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network
  • The World Wildlife Fund

In 2003, wildlife agency directors and other senior officials of the western hemisphere met in Chile to develop a cooperative measure geared towards the conservation of shared migratory species, creating an interim committee to guide such efforts and defining the following priorities:

Migrating Whale. Credit: Bahia Aventuras, Costa Rica

Credit: Bahia Aventuras, Costa Rica

  • Aiding in the building of countries’ capacities to conserve and manage migratory wildlife;
  • Improving communication within the hemisphere with regards to common conservation issues;
  • Strengthening the exchange of information needed for informed decision-making; and
  • Providing a forum in which emerging issues can be identified and addressed.

WHMSI thereby defined its broader function as a non-prescriptive facilitator of cooperation among both governmental and non-governmental interests focused on migratory species conservation matters of broad common interest.

In 2006, WHMSI held its second meeting in Costa Rica in order to identify partnerships to better aid countries in their training and conservation efforts. Representatives from 30 countries, and 60 non-governmental organizations and international conventions identified and prioritized their training needs, which were then integrated into a comprehensive plan aiming to train wildlife decision-makers, government officials, and managers under the WHMSI framework. 

In 2008, the Paraguayan Ministries of Environment and Tourism hosted the third Western Hemisphere Migratory Species Conference in Asuncion, Paraguay. Government wildlife officials and non-governmental organizations’ and conventions’ representatives gathered to engage in international dialogue and cooperation on migratory species. The Conference established an updated list of activities since the first conference, took further steps towards establishing a permanent forum for the conservation of migratory wildlife, and conducted thematic sessions of interest to the region, including issues such as adaptation to climate change, marine turtle conservation, and migratory birds conservation.

In 2010, Miami hosted the fourth WHMSI meeting, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Organization of American States acting as co-sponsors. Representatives from 30 countries, 20 nongovernmental organizations, four Conventions and the OAS attended. The Conference sought to:
1) Take further steps towards establishing a permanent forum for the hemispheric conservation of migratory wildlife, both terrestrial and marine;
2) Explore regional and sub-regional collaboration regarding migratory species conservation initiatives;
3) Update activities since the 2008 conference in Paraguay; and
4) Set a direction for the future and the sustainability of WHMSI.

A number of important goals were accomplished at the Conference including the adoption in principle of the document, "Western Hemisphere Migaratory Species Initiative Purpose and Organization." This document provides a framework and guidance for WHMSI, including its vision, mission, guiding principles, objectives, and implementation.

Another important result of the Conference included the selection of a WHMSI Steering Committee. Following guidance from the newly approved Purpose and Organization document, the Steering Committee is composed of a cross-section of partner representation including six governments of the Hemisphere, ten representatives of civil society, and two representatives from Conventions and hemispheric or sub-regional governmental bodies, all focused on migratory species and their habitats.