Europe and Central Asia
2 May 2016

How protected areas at sea can save seabirds

New Caledonia has the world's largest Marine Protected Area. Photo: Eustaquio Santimano/Flickr
By Bruna Campos

Marine protected areas have become a hot topic ever since countries have been trying to beat each other on who has the largest protected area. New Caledonia (France) still holds the record for the largest marine protected area at 1,292,967 Km2 – declared in 2012. Close on its heels is the impressive Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, declared by the US in September 2014.

In March 2015, the UK government declared its largest marine protected area in the Pitcairn Islands. It measures 834,000 square kilometres – three and half times the size of the UK itself. And just this month, the inhabitants of the Austral Islands of French Polynesia put forward a proposal to their government to have their waters declared a marine reserve. This protected area would span more than one million square kilometres, and it could take the title of the world’s largest marine reserve.

These large marine protected areas are needed to not just preserve beautiful and pristine seas, but also to ensure the ecological stability of many species including sea turtles, sharks, rays, whales and seabirds. Furthermore, these marine reserves often ensure the preservation of fishing grounds, traditions and ways of life for local inhabitants – hence the push from the people of the Austral Islands.

However, one does not need to build one or two large protected areas to achieve just that – an ecologically coherent network of protected areas can be just as effective. You also don’t need to go to Bora Bora to protect the marine environment. The BirdLife Partnership has been supporting European countries to build this ecologically coherent network of protected areas in continental Europe by identifying marine Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs).

These are the most important sites for site-based conservation efforts for birds. They are also used as ‘shadow lists’ of sites for recognition under the EU’s Birds Directive as Special Protected Areas, forming the backbone of the EU’s Natura 2000 network.

In 2014, BirdLife evaluated how EU countries were faring in protecting their marine areas. It turned out that only 59% of marine IBAs were actually protected. Since then, Portugal and Lithuania have designated a large number of Special Protected Areas. However, countries with large coastlines such as Sweden and the UK continue to do very poorly to protect seabirds. In 2016, we expect the European Commission to take a much harder stance with EU countries for insufficiently protecting their marine areas.

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Nevertheless, marking areas on a map is just the first step. Once areas are protected, governments need to actually make the effort to enforce rules that ensure the conservation needs of these areas are actually met. This might mean having fishing vessels put in place measures against accidentally catching seabirds, including conservation needs when spatially planning exclusive economic zones, or dealing with large nutrient input at sea that causes eutrophication (excess fertiliser runoff into lakes and rivers causes the growth of algae at the expense of native plants) and destroys valuable habitats.

BirdLife Partners are also supporting governments in establishing these management solutions by testing mitigation gears, monitoring birds or cleaning up marine litter in the sea. The BirdLife Partnership is at the forefront in achieving concrete results for marine protected areas in 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.