Europe and Central Asia
9 Mar 2016

Turning the West African Atlantic from bycatch hell to seabird haven

A Royal Tern colony. Photo: Ross Wanless
By Ross Wanless and Justine Dossa

Migration brings home to us the reality that seabirds' lives are not bounded by arbitrary political borders, be they terrestrial or marine, regional or international. Indeed, the world’s oceans are all interconnected, allowing seabirds to move such staggeringly vast distances. How tragically ironic it would be if seabird conservation efforts in one region are rendered moot through human actions in another region?

This is the primary reason why BirdLife International’s seabird conservation is a global programme. This reasoning is particularly evident for many of Europe’s seabirds, which migrate in the millions to or through West Africa’s Atlantic waters, the Canary Current Large Marine Ecosystem (CCLME).

The CCLME is a highly productive upwelling system off West Africa (an upwelling is a wind-driven motion of dense, cooler, and usually nutrient-rich water towards the ocean surface to replace warmer, nutrient-depleted surface water) that sustains large quantities of small pelagic prey (that live neither too close to the ocean floor nor too close to the surface). These in turn attract marine predators, including a huge diversity and abundance of seabirds that breed in the region, passing migratory birds such as Sabine’s Gull, and wintering species.

Significant numbers – and sometimes even entire European populations – of certain European seabird species overwinter in the CCLME, including the the blue-eyed, plunge-diving Northern Gannet and the piratical Arctic Skua. This makes the CCLME region globally important for seabird conservation, but particularly important for European seabird conservation. However, all is not well in the CCLME waters.

Many fish stocks in West Africa are overfished or collapsed, thanks to both foreign and domestic fleets. These waters also rather infamously experience the highest levels of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the world, with European fleets implicated in this plundering. There remains significant tension between local/artisanal fishers and the foreign fishing fleets (legal and IUU), which many claim have displaced local fishers and their livelihoods. Overfishing frequently has broad impacts across all marine food webs, especially for species such as seabirds that often compete directly with fisheries for food and become victims of bycatch.

BirdLife International is leading a seabird and marine IBAs project, the Alcyon Project (started in 2013), funded by the MAVA Foundation. Alcyon has gathered an impressive dataset for the demarcation of marine IBAs, including contributing over 1,500 tracks from nearly 800 individual seabirds of about 20 species to the BirdLife International Global Seabird Tracking Database. The project is filling important and significant gaps in our knowledge of seabird distributions and at-sea threats in the region – potentially including overfishing, bycatch and disturbance through emerging oil and gas drilling.

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The West African marine environment generally suffers from weak governance, little or no enforcement of regulations, and mostly ‘paper parks’ – conservation areas that exist only on paper; Alcyon highlights the need for many of these issues to be addressed, and provides proactive tools to help shape appropriate responses. 

Identifying marine IBAs during the first phase of Alcyon was first step towards pinpointing those risks: BirdLife is finalising this step. There is a clear and strong need for marine spatial conservation planning, and our marine IBAs will contribute significantly to this. But this step requires strong regulation and global efforts to tackle uncontrolled fishing, including from European fleets. Alcyon will provide the capacity and opportunity to advance spatial planning and manage threats.

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.