Europe and Central Asia
7 Jun 2017

Dire Straits - is Europe protecting its seabirds?

© Iván Ramírez
By Gui-Xi Young

A new scientific paper, spearheaded by our Head of Conservation, Iván Ramírez, has been published in the peer-reviewed journal ‘Marine Policy’. This study summarises the latest country-by-country and species-specific analyses of the EU’s marine SPA (Special Protection Areas) network and offers critical new insights into how well Europe is protecting its seabirds.


With oceans covering 71% of the Earth’s surface, it is small wonder that our little home in the solar system is often called the ‘Blue Planet’. Yet so much of our ocean environment remains a mystery. But indeed, isn’t that the romance of the big blue expanse that we are celebrating today, on ‘World Oceans Day’. A romance that has inspired explorers from Cook to Cousteau, storytellers from Homer to Hemmingway…and, of course, conservationists seeking to fathom the depths.

Sadly, on the flip side, the conservation of marine biodiversity is – in the words of Ivan Ramirez, Head of Conservation at BirdLife Europe & Central Asia – “a challenging enterprise”. To say the least. Many marine species are incredibly difficult to observe or track and there is an inherent lack of data and research resources in many countries, both here in Europe and globally.


Grassholm gannets © Stuart Murray


The Desertas petrel…all at sea

Take the Desertas petrel, for example, a recently split species listed as Vulnerable because of its small population. Ramírez and his colleagues have been tracking this species yearly since 2007, and have now accumulated one of the largest tracking datasets of any gadfly petrel in the world (available at! What the tiny loggers attached to the bird’s legs revealed to them was quite amazing: from its remote breeding grounds in Bugio Island (Madeira), the Desertas petrel performs a truly Atlantic “tour” with individuals wintering in as many as five different locations, identified in Cape Verde, Brazil, Argentina and Florida[1]. Ramírez has also found that these birds are very loyal to their winter grounds – that is, if a particular bird likes the Brazilian Coast, it will go there every single year[2].

But the Desertas petrel, just as many other seabirds, does not tend to concentrate at sea forming “rafts” (i.e. flocks of seabirds), nor does it chase fishing vessels like other seabird species, such as gulls or shearwaters. It is also notoriously hard to spot out on the open ocean – so how do we make sure that such a species, once it leaves its breeding grounds, gets the protection it deserves?

The conservation challenges associated with the Desertas petrel – incidentally, the very subject of Ramírez’ own PhD thesis – is an excellent case in point. And quite appropriately so, for with its dark cap and distinctive dark ‘M’-shaped pattern across its wings, it certainly fits the bill for a seabird superhero! Its study offers useful insight into why Europe’s seabirds are in such dire straits – alarmingly, they are the most threatened bird group in the world – and how we can better protect them.


Desertas Petrel © Iván Ramírez


Dial ‘M” for Marine Protected Areas

Indeed, building on this research, Ramírez has now published a peer-reviewed scientific paper that examines precisely this question: ‘How well is the EU protecting its seabirds? Progress in implementing the Birds Directive at Sea[3].

Using all the latest data already available from BirdLife partners and the European Commission, this paper analyses the current legal protection and spatial coverage provided by the EU’s network of marine SPAs (Special Protection Areas) to its 82 regularly occurring seabird species and compares this to BirdLife’s own IBA (Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas) network. And in undertaking – for the first time – a country-by-country and species-specific approach, this paper establishes an important new baseline to assess how well the EU meets its own marine biodiversity targets.


Puffin colony © Wes Davies


A sea change is needed

The paper’s findings show that the EU desperately needs a ‘sea change’ when it comes to marine protected areas. Though the EU fairs better than other global regions, its waters are still very poorly covered by SPAs – only 3.9% compared to 12.5% on land. And, on top of this, there are enormous regional differences, with Scandinavian and Baltic states offering far greater legal protection for their national sites in comparison to countries around the Black Sea, the central and eastern Mediterranean and around the UK and Ireland. Interestingly, these disparities do not reflect the size of the countries’ Economic Exclusive Zones (EEZ) or the economic wealth of individual states. Ten EU countries protect less than 3% of their waters, including four out of five states with the largest marine area: Portugal, UK, Italy and Greece.

This study also found that the size of a Member State’s SPA network was not influenced by the year it joined the EU, and that many Members States have failed to declare their marine SPA networks despite calls from the Commission to do so. This demonstrates that political will – at both national and EU level – is one of the main drivers for the successful identification, designation and management of a complete network of marine SPAs across Europe.  


Puffin colony © Sheila Russell


Where there’s a will, there’s a way…

These findings are in line with the European Commission’s own ‘Fitness Check’ of the Birds & Habitats Directives, published at the end of last year: our nature laws are ‘fit for purpose’ but we are failing in terms of proper implementation. These laws should, in theory, be transposed and implemented by Member States into their own national legislation, and failure to do so can lead them to be taken the European Court of Justice by the European Commission. In practice, not enough is done to hold Member States up to their duty to Europe’s nature.

It is time for the Commission to put truth behind the old adage “where there is a will, there is a way”. They have already said that there is a ‘will’ for better implementation of the Nature Directives. Here at BirdLife, we shall be keeping a close (and hopeful) eye out for whether this opens the ‘way’ through dire straits for Europe’s seabirds.


Gui-Xi Young - Editor & Campaigns Officer, BirdLife Europe & Central Asia

[1] Ramírez, I., Paiva, V.H., Menezes, D., Silva, I., Phillips, R.A., Ramos, J.A., Garthe, S., 2013. Year-round distribution and habitat preferences of the Bugio petrel. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 476, 269–284. doi:10.3354/meps10083

[2] Ramírez, I., Paiva, V.H., Fagundes, I., Menezes, D., Silva, I., Ceia, F.R., Phillips, R.A., Ramos, J.A., Garthe, S., 2015. Conservation implications of consistent foraging and trophic ecology in a rare petrel species. Animal Conservation n/a–n/a. doi:10.1111/acv.12227

[3] Ramírez et al., ‘How well is the EU protecting its seabirds? Progress in implementing the Birds Directive at Sea’ in Marine Policy 81 (2017) 179-184. This paper uses data collected by our BirdLife partners for their regular updates on the status of their national IBAs (BirdLife’s network of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas) and was co-authored by other BirdLife International staff: Marguerite Tarzia, Maria Dias and Ian Burfield. 

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.



Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.