Pacific Petrels in Peril. An ambitious programme to give Pacific petrels a secure future!

 fiji petrel © Hadroam Shirihai
The enigmatic Fiji Petrel - one the priority Pacific petrels in peril © Hadroam Shirihai

For generations of sailors and those who love the sea, seabirds have been their companions, entertainment and when the seas turn angry their inspiration. 

They can be majestic, funny, noisy, mysterious and spectacular.  Sprinkled across the tropical Pacific, the innumerable islands of Oceania are home to some of the most unusual bird communities on the planet.  From Hawaii to New Zealand’s Sub Antarctic Islands, the Pacific is the home to the biggest and most diverse populations of sea birds in the world.  The Pacific is sea-bird capital!

But these companions of travellers, fishers and visitors to the coast are in trouble, especially in the Pacific.  They are more threatened than any other comparable group of birds.   And their status has deteriorated faster over recent decades. Many of the birds that live in this region are endangered. Many more have become extinct as a result of human activity, in both recent and prehistoric times. And some really special sea birds are right on the brink of slipping into extinction.  And extinction is forever!

Over the years BirdLife and its partners have taken actions to protect (and find) different species but the problem is so big we have embarked on a Pacific wide strategy for the conservation of this critically endangered group of seabirds.  We are calling it 'Pacific Petrels in Peril'.

The petrels, which conventionally include the petrels, shearwaters and storm-petrels belonging to the families Procellariidae, Oceanitidae and Hydrobatidae, have lost far more populations in Oceania than any other bird family. That is why this new programme gives emphasis to this group – the ‘Petrels’.  Specific projects that are being developed as part of the strategy for different flagship petrel species will also help other seabird species.

Most islands in Oceania have not had systematic surveys of breeding seabirds. While there are some threats at sea for seabirds breeding in the region, the primary threats are on land. Until we can eliminate predation pressure and the degradation of nesting/roosting colonies and establish these as secure sites there will be no improvement in their conservation status.

BirdLife is developing the first coherent and comprehensive plan for the conservation of Pacific seabirds. 

It aims to find the breeding sites to allow conservation action to make them safe, confirm the population status of species and develop conservation plans for each of them.  The new programme will also improve on the current conservation work, and where it is needed, start new actions.  While BirdLife is leading this work it is looking to work with other partners and organisations.  BirdLife will develop networks for improved communication, resource sharing, capacity building and further project development.

With so many species needing help, it is not just one project but many.  But all are linked with each part of the project building on the knowledge and technical skills of the participants.  And importantly work done to save one species can often help others using the same environment.  For example the big projects being carried out by BirdLife, its member partners and the external ones like Island Conservation, can be significant in saving petrels and other sea birds.  Last year’s Acteon & Gambier project created safe habitat for many thousands of sea bids.  The proposed restoration of the islands of the Marquesas Archipelago will protect 22 species of seabird including three globally threatened (Tahiti Petrel, Phoenix Petrel, Polynesian Storm-Petrel) and at least two globally threatened land birds (Marquesas Ground-Dove, Marquesas Monarch).  And Rapa and its satellite islets are home to an assemblage of seabirds unlike those found elsewhere in French Polynesia with eleven species, seven of which are petrels and shearwaters including an endemic form of the White-bellied storm petrel.

The Projects:

Up first in the programme are attempts to try and find the nesting sites of two previously lost birds.

Becks Petrel (Pseudobulweria becki): In April 2015 a BirdLife International team set off on the latest voyage of discovery on the trail of the Critically Endangered Beck’s Petrels. Now over eighty years since it was first described the species’ nesting grounds remain unknown. This is the riddle the current project is aiming to solve.  Since their rediscovery at sea by Hadoram Shirihai in 2007, successive trips have begun to put the first few pieces of the Beck’s Petrel puzzle into place. While there is still very little that is known for certain, BirdLife’s work has honed in on a search area.

The latest trip will focus its attention on the seas around the southern tip of New Ireland, one of Papua New Guinea’s Bismarck Islands. If the petrels are found, and they can be attracted close to the expedition vessel’s tender, then a mist net fired from a specially designed net gun using compressed air will be used to capture the birds. Any birds caught will be retrieved quickly and safely from the net, before their breeding condition is assessed. They will be weighed, measured and photographed before being released back to sea free from harm.

This is only the first step on a long road gaining knowledge in the lead up to another expedition in 2017 with a larger team to fit transmitters that will ultimately allow the birds to be tracked to their nesting sites.  Once the nesting sites have been found, the threats can be assessed and conservation action put in place to secure the species and to allow it begin its recovery.

Fiji Petrel: (Pseudobulweria macgillivrayi)   Saving the Fiji Petrel is one of the top priorities of Pacific Petrels in Peril.  It is an iconic species.  It is on postage stamps and the Fiji $50 note.  But it is one of the world's most enigmatic sea birds. 

Lost for over 100 years apart from a few tantalising glimpses, it was rediscovered by when one was captured in in 1984.  It is currently believed that fewer than 50 pairs survive, breeding in 52 square kilometres in  rugged forest on the island of Gau, Fiji, but its nesting grounds have yet to be located.

It has to be assumed that the existing meagre population of Fiji Petrel is declining.  It is known that cats are on the high ridgelines as are Pacific Rats   Brown and Black rats are also on the island but their distribution is not known.  Feral pigs are also a major treat.  But until the location of the nests is known no practical conservation measures to secure the remaining nests and start the recovery can happen. 

Finding where they nest is the single most urgent and important conservation action required now to save the species from extinction. Two (New Zealand-trained) petrel detector dogs are deployed on the island and the presence of Collard Petrel on Gau allows the search teams to gain experience without impacting on the rare Fijian Petrels.  But finding Fiji Petrel is a complex challenge and needs the further support of experienced seabird biologists and the application of a range of technologies (in addition to the petrel dogs) to increase the chances of finding these nesting sites.  Recently experience has been gained in locating the nests of other petrels including other `lost birds' like the New Zealand Storm Petrel and the Chatham Island Taiko.

Key results of the Fiji Petrel project to date

1. Re-discovery in 1984 (Watling 1986)

2. Determination of timing of breeding cycle (Priddel et al 2008)

3. Captures on land – these are birds attracted to lights along in villages (Watling 1986, Priddel et al 2008, NF-MV Quarterly reports 2010-2012, Scofield et al 2012)4. Sightings at sea (Watling 2010)

5. Dog team established and maintained (NF-MV Quarterly reports 2010-2012)

6. Ground searches (NF-MV Quarterly reports)

7. Recording of Fiji Petrel (bird captured) (O’Connor & Carlile, in prep)

8. Spotlighting effort (Watling 1986, Fraser 2012)

9. Telemetry effort (Collared Petrels) (Fraser 2012)

10. Identification of threats (Priddel et al 2008, Fraser 2012)

11. Raising awareness of Fiji Petrel and community involvement.

There is no guarantee but if the project does not succeed this iconic bird will be lost - and live on only on a Fiji $20 bank note!


So you want to help?

Nothing can be achieved without resources.  Everyone can be part of this amazing opportunity to secure the future of these amazing and inspirational birds.  A single donation to our Just Giving Page through to a major donation or sponsorship.  The opportunity is there for a corporate sponsorship of a specific bird or the programme itself.  The threatened Pacific petrels are really in peril and we need help.  Contact BirdLife Pacific direct or go to the donation page: