Cliffs lying barren: why we can't afford to ignore the Kittiwake crash
“Out of sight, out of mind” - the alarming decline of the Black-legged Kittiwake provides a painful lesson that The High Seas – open ocean outside national jurisdiction – need urgent protection. But hope is at hand with the proposal of a new Marine Protected Area.
The nomadic Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla crosses great swathes of the Atlantic outside the breeding season. Yet each year, fewer and fewer are making it back to dry land, and the number of chicks produced per nest is in steep decline. Once thriving cliff colonies of thousands in former coastal bastions in Scotland, Greenland and Norway lie barren. On the isles of Orkney and Shetland, numbers have plummeted by 87% since 2000, and by 96% on the Hebridean island of St Kilda.
The prospect of entire colonies being wiped out and local extinction is a clear and present danger. A danger hammered home by BirdLife uplisting the species from Least Concern to Vulnerable in the 2017 IUCN Red List.
Rising sea temperatures are driving catastrophic declines in plankton
This is but one symptom of a greater malaise for Atlantic seabirds across the board – Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica are also experiencing massive declines. Some conservationists point to climate change: rising sea temperatures are driving catastrophic declines in plankton populations, with a knock-on effect to the rest of the food chain, disrupting the availability of fish to seabirds. However, we still need a much better scientific understanding of why so many seabirds are perishing on the high seas during winter – or why they are returning to colonies too tired and underfed to reproduce.
Sampling found birds with "stomachs full of plastic"
This summer, our European Marine Conservation Officer Marguerite Tarzia boarded RRS Discovery and set sail on an epic journey to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge – a renowned hotspot for seabirds, including the Black-legged Kittiwake. But even here, Marguerite laments that: “there have also been the tell-tale signs of humans, and the impact we are having on the planet”. In several cases, sampling revealed “bird stomachs full of plastic”, and the oceanographic work found water from the cold Labrador Current to be considerably warmer than 30 years ago. It is clear that this area – so important for seabirds and used by other highly mobile species – should be protected from encroaching human activities.
The high seas – the large open ocean beyond national jurisdictions – cover about 45% of the Earth’s surface, but responsibility for their protection has long fallen between the cracks of our global governance models. The ‘Oslo-Paris’ Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic – known as OSPAR – has been leading the charge to rectify this within its region. In October, BirdLife submitted a proposal to OSPAR, demonstrating the need for it to designate a ‘North Atlantic Current and Evlanov Seamount’ High Seas Marine Protected Area (MPA).
Though the Convention has already designated seven sites in the high seas to safeguard biodiversity inhabiting the seafloor (such as corals and sponges), the BirdLife-proposed site, if approved, would be the first High Seas MPA in the OSPAR Maritime Area to be based on the foraging grounds of seabirds.
This is what happens when nations take an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to conservation
International protection from OSPAR could be the first step required for the conservation of some threatened seabird species that forage in the Mid-North-East Atlantic, including the Black-legged Kittiwake. And the imperative is magnified for species that spend vast parts of their life cycle out in this oceanic ‘no man’s land’. The alarming decline of the Black-legged Kittiwake provides a painful lesson in what happens to seabirds when nations take an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to conservation.
What is already clear is that seabird species like the kittiwake, which forages in the proposed MPA all year round – and particularly during the perilous winter – need international protection. If the signatories of the Convention want to steer the seabirds of the North East Atlantic safely out of dire straits, then they must chart a course for “OSPAR Wild”.
This story is part of the Red List 2017 bird update - click for more
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