Gulls, turtles and seals, three marine triumphs
Marine wildlife in Europe has long been suffering because of human activities. Although we have a lot of work to do still, here are three marine stories that show the Nature Directives work when they are put to good use.
1) A special gull – and you thought they were all the same!
We all remember the gulls in ‘Finding Nemo’, portrayed as lazy, dumb, and incapable of saying anything besides one word: ‘mine’. Gulls are a group of seabirds that have a pretty bad reputation (a.k.a. ‘the flying rats’). Like rats, gulls are often perceived as dirty and diseased scavengers of food. They stir negative emotions like gangs of thieves would – stealing your sandwiches before you’ve even had a chance to take a bite!
As a side note, a gull’s Klepto-parasitism isn’t just against humans, although we tend to think very highly of our species, we find a gull’s behaviour very offensive – that they would dare steal or eat our food without permission. However, I would like to introduce you to another side of the gull. Watch one long enough and you’ll notice an incredible display of acrobatics, patience, and simply straight out cheekiness (in a cute way). Like most other parents, gulls are protective and very aggressive against anything approaching their nest – hence the famous sky dive attacks you may have already experienced. Like many seabirds, they mate for life - although divorces do happen with some social problems for a couple of years.
There are 20 species of gull in Europe, and although they share a similar build, they are all quite different, some having more pronounced looks than others. One in particular, Audouin’s Gull, which can only be found in the Mediterranean, is unlike many of its cousins because it rarely scavenges. Rather, it’s a specialist coastal and pelagic fish eater (not to say that they wouldn’t pass off diving for an easy fish that has been thrown away by a fisher at sea). It was one of the world's rarest gulls in 1975, with only 1,000 pairs. Protection under the Birds Directive contributed to the creation and implementation of a European action plan which has helped secure its survival, especially in Spain.
Several projects were implemented that contributed to successful re-colonisation of breeding islands and the control of invasive black rats which were predating colonies. Today, with the most recent assessment of the European birds (the European Red List of Birds), we can say that the Audouin’s Gull has the lowest level of extinction risk with around 21,000 pairs. But we must be cautious. Although there has been improvement, particularly in Spain, much more still needs to be done across the Mediterranean to ensure that this gull continues to survive, such as implementing safe fishing gears to stop fishers from accidentally catching gulls in their fishing lines and nets.
2) Sea turtle’s little helpers are saving the day
Sea turtle volunteers run the beaches of Zakynthos in Greece (for Brits, the island is also called ‘Zante’). Before tourists can sprawl all over the sand, sea turtle ‘human little helpers’ make sure they know exactly what is going on with the turtles. How are they doing this, you might wonder? Well, they get up very early and work all morning before daybreak to find out the number of nests laid and their location. They also spend countless nights tagging as many turtles as they can that stride up on the beach to nest. They then run around the beaches alerting tourists about these wonderful creatures, and to not sit in places on the beach where they might break some eggs.
How is all of this relevant to the ‘Nature Directives’? Well, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, the creature these little helpers are working hard for, are protected by the Habitats Directive. These turtles are widespread and highly migratory, and are endangered globally. So it is only with strict nature legislation and management plans that we can stop their decline. Little helpers please continue doing what you are doing now – you’re making a difference, and we hope in the future to see loggerhead numbers increase.
Loggerhead sea turtle hatchling (c) nertog - walk with me, Flickr
3) The seal that tried to be common
Take a boat trip along the Frisian coast: can you spot that seal? Probably yes! Lucky you, because if it wasn’t for the Habitats Directive, that seal could be long gone by now. Despite being called ‘Common Seal’, during the last 100 years intense hunting and disease caused its decline in Europe. To help them recover, shooting was banned. However, seals were then hit hard in the 1980s by a disease called phocine distemper, which causes uncontrollable periodic population crashes. Although disease and pollution still threaten the species, hunting restrictions, habitat protection and improved management, especially working with fishers, have helped increase numbers to now over 81,000 in Europe. Thanks again for helping Nature Directives.
Common seal, Phoca vitulina (c) Andreas Trepte, Wikimedia Commons
These marine comebacks remind us that it is in our power to prevent the loss of a species forever. Nevertheless, we are very far from ensuring the safety of our seabirds and other marine creatures and we must do more. The Birds and Habitats Directives are here to help us with this, but their implementation is fundamental to secure the continued survival of all our marine animals.
This article appears in our July 2015 newsletter. Sign up here to read more stories like this.