Troubled waters for our seabirds
Did you know that we have 82 species of seabird in Europe? You probably recognise the most charismatic ones, like the clown faced Atlantic Puffin and sharp blue-eyed Northern Gannet. But there are many other species you may not know because they actually spend nearly their entire lives out at sea and so are rarely seen, only coming to our shores to breed before flying off again into the deep blue. Many of these species are in trouble, facing declines and possible extinction based on the latest scientific information. The current situation is clear: urgent action is needed so they don’t disappear from Europe forever.
Why is the fate of our seabirds so grim today? They have been facing multiple threats: climate change, which amongst other impacts can make it more difficult for seabirds to find food; they often risk being caught and killed accidentally in fishing gear; they are losing breeding and feeding habitat because of infrastructure on land and at sea; they are being preyed on by invasive rats, cats and foxes; and poisoned or choked by marine litter and oil pollution.
Across the European region, which extends from the Arctic to the Mediterranean and Black Sea, 15 seabird species are facing threats so severe that their populations are declining and could be on a slippery slope towards extinction. Another 9 seabirds are waiting in the wings, and although their risk of extinction from the region is a bit lower, they are edging dangerously close to the higher risk categories. In the EU this number is even more alarming, as 21 seabird species are considered to be facing a higher risk of extinction. How do we know this? Well, BirdLife Europe just completed a European-wide assessment for all bird species and produced the European Red List of Birds, the benchmark for identifying species most at risk of extinction from the continent.
Across Northern Europe many seabird breeding colonies which once held hundreds of thousands of birds are merely a sad shadow of their former selves. In some places, such as the island of Runde in Norway, vast cliffs which were once full of breeding Northern Fulmar have seen the species vanish entirely. Across Europe the Northern Fulmar, Atlantic Puffin and Black-legged Kittiwake are all in decline, and are now considered ‘Endangered’ either within the EU and/or across Europe. Seaducks, such as the Long-tailed Duck, Velvet Scoter, Common Eider and Common and Yellow-billed Loon are also faring poorly, ranked as ‘Vulnerable’ across Europe - with huge declines in the Baltic Sea. These seabirds dive below the waters surface to feed on prey along the sea floor and so are particularly susceptible of getting helplessly entangled in fishing nets. The Balearic Shearwater is one of Europe’s most threatened birds and their accidental capture in fishing gear has been contributing to driving numbers down to the extent that scientists predict that the species could be extinct within 60 years.
Before it’s too late for our seabirds, we must use the tools that we have to save them, including the EU Nature Directives and EU marine policies. Probably the most important, yet underutilized tool is the Natura 2000 network. This network of protected sites extends across the EU, yet up till now, very few sites have been designated at sea, and even fewer specifically for seabirds. EU countries are not doing enough for seabirds. Only 1% of our seas are currently protecting them. Also, whilst protecting a seabird during breeding is crucial, it’s only half the story, as most seabirds migrate and travel large distances during the year away from where they have their young. You can read about BirdLife’s assessment of each EU country’s progress here, and see for yourself how your country is doing.
Lines on maps will not bring seabirds back on their own, but with careful and effective management we can give European seabirds a fighting chance to claw, peck and soar their way back up that slippery slope away from extinction. Until then, BirdLife’s mantra on identifying, designating and managing Natura 2000 sites will continue.
This article appears in our July 2015 newsletter. Sign up here to read more stories like this.