Europe and Central Asia
26 Jun 2015

Natura 2000, a haven for seabirds in simmering seas

Atlantic Puffin © Billtacular, Flickr
By Euan Dunn


The evidence is mounting that climate change is one of the greatest threats facing seabirds today. The warming and acidification of our seas we have been witnessing are unravelling marine food webs from the tiniest plankton through to small shoaling fish prey, the staple diet of seabirds and other predators. Increasingly common extreme weather events are whipping our seas into a turbulent frenzy, making it ever harder for seabirds, especially deep divers like auks, to find and capture fish. European seabirds are in trouble, but Natura 2000 may offer a much needed haven to help them cope with this onslaught which we cannot expect to diminish anytime soon.

Natura 2000 is Europe’s largest network of protected areas to protect biodiversity and ensure the survival of Europe’s most valuable species and habitats. It is made up of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) established under the Habitats Directive, but also Special Protection Areas (SPAs) designated under the Birds Directive. These could help safeguard seabird populations if their key breeding and foraging areas are identified, designated and effectively managed. Building a resilient network of protected areas will allow for seabirds to better adapt to changes in climate. But most Member States have been painfully slow in designating SPAs, especially those offshore, so many of our seabirds, like the charismatic and colourful Atlantic Puffin, have been suffering.

The Atlantic Puffin stands out head and shoulders above the rest as one of the most instantly recognisable and best loved of our seabirds, indeed of any bird. We ignore at our peril the recent news from the updated European Red List that it is now ‘Endangered’ at the European level. At the heart of this dramatic change are decreasing numbers in Iceland and Norway, which together account for 80% of the European population. The other major Puffin stronghold – the UK – also appears to be in decline. The IUCN predicts that if we don’t act quickly, overall numbers of Puffin will fall by a staggering 50-79% by 2065. Climate change is a critical driver of this frighteningly rapid rate of loss. In the Faroes and parts of Iceland, Puffins have suffered ten successive years of breeding collapse because local sandeel stocks, their key prey, are drying up. Local communities on the Faroes and Iceland’s Westmann Islands are so concerned that they’ve given up their cherished centuries-old custom of hunting Puffins.  

Puffins and most other seabird species are long-lived, surviving up to 30 years or more, so they can withstand a few years of low success. But chronic year-on-year failure condemns seabird populations to decline. The stress of having to hunt harder for scarce food also increases the risk of adult seabird mortality, which accelerates this downward trend. And it’s not just Puffins that are suffering.  Scotland has lost around half of its breeding seabirds in the last 25 years, including 80% of its Arctic Skuas, 72% of its Arctic Terns, and 68% of its Black-legged Kittiwakes, amounting to millions of birds.

The survival and breeding success of all of these species depends on a plentiful supply of small, highly nutritious fish, especially the sandeel. But sea warming is profoundly altering the food web of European waters, especially in the north, undermining populations of key fish prey like the sandeel. Changes on the scale we have witnessed represents a massive ‘regime shift’ in the marine ecosystem so it is scarcely surprising that northern Europe’s seabird populations, as top predators, are now in freefall.    

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Extreme weather events are also taking a toll. In winter 2014, the storms that battered Europe’s Atlantic coast resulted in one of the biggest seabird ‘wrecks’ on record, with 30,000 seabirds (about half of them Puffins) washed ashore dead and starved. Furthermore, oceans also absorb about 40% of all the carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere, and because of increased carbon emissions, our seas are acidifying at a rate unprecedented in the Earth’s history.  Scientists are predicting major habitat loss for coastal bivalves and other molluscs as populations shift north towards colder waters, spelling potential trouble for diving sea-duck and shorebirds.

With the Atlantic Puffin and other seabirds clearly in danger, the need to establish, without further delay, a well-managed comprehensive Natura 2000 network has never been more vital. But the chronically slow emergence of offshore marine Natura 2000 sites for seabirds is now in even greater jeopardy with the ongoing review of the Nature Directives, giving BirdLife renewed concerns that Europe is falling well short of the measures it needs to take to help seabird populations combat climate change into the future.


This article appears in our July 2015 newsletter. Sign up here to read more stories like this.

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