Exotic plants, invasive rats, and fishnets
Crystal clear waters, rough steep cliffs and vibrant seas teeming with marine life are a typical scene off Portugal’s mainland and offshore islands. It sounds like a vacationer’s or scuba diver’s paradise, but for some seabird species it’s also the perfect place to nest and feed. Although they are amongst Europe’s most threatened group of birds, seabirds can still be found breeding in Portugal’s Azores, Madeira and Berlengas Archipelagos. SPEA (BirdLife in Portugal) has been doing a great job to make sure it stays this way. They have been demonstrating how site specific protection works, and that Natura 2000, Europe’s largest network of protected areas established under the Birds and Habitats Directives, can serve as a foundation for marine conservation.
The Berlengas, only 6 nautical miles from the Portuguese mainland were initially set aside to protect the Common Guillemot. But because of a history full of neglect, the very species the reserve was created for is now sadly only part of the islands past as it has not been seen nesting here in over a decade. To stop other seabirds from sharing a similar fate, the islands are now at the heart of an EU LIFE Project run by SPEA. They are doing whatever they can to restore the Berlengas islands to their natural condition for seabirds and endemic/native plants, or at least, as close as possible to what they once were.
This has meant removing exotic plants and replacing them with native species and battling against invasive species like rats which often eat seabird eggs and chicks. Artificial nests are also being added and are quite effective because they offer protection against bad weather, from predators and other seabirds competing for space. They’ve also been working with fishers to find ways to prevent birds from getting accidentally entangled in fishing gears. Cory's Shearwater, European Shags, and the only “continental” population of Band-rumped Storm Petrel are some of the seabirds that will benefit from all these activities. Sounds like an ambitious venture, but SPEA has shown it’s achievable because of a similar project recently finished, Safe Islands for Seabirds, in the remote Corvo Island in the Azores. It was so successful it even won one of 2013’s ‘Best LIFE’ Nature Projects award.
SPEA has also been working in the Graciosa Islets of the spectacular Azores Archipelago. The Azores is the only place in the world where Monteiro's Storm Petrel is found, so it is a very special place indeed. There are just 250-300 pairs in existence and they only breed on two of the islets here. So far these petrels have been safe from ground predators, but there is always a risk that an invasive mammal species such as rats will swim ashore and cause disaster. It wouldn’t take much to wipe out these colonies completely. SPEA is now working on developing an action plan for the petrel so that the government will have the knowledge and tools in place to safeguard the species into the future.
Perhaps one of SPEA’s oldest fights has been convincing their government that the first step in conservation of sensitive marine areas should be the extension of Natura 2000 to the marine environment through the designation of Special Protection Areas (SPAs). So far only the Madeiran SPAs and little more have been established, but SPEA hasn’t given up this fight and there is some optimism that the Portuguese government will listen soon…
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