Gareth Cunningham, RSPB Senior Policy Officer, reports from Cork in the Republic of Ireland where an important review of the health of our seabirds and the wider marine environment has been released.

This year celebrates 25 years of the OSPAR commission, a mechanism by which 15 Governments and the EU cooperate to protect the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic (see OSPAR map). Established in 1992, OSPAR helps the membership Governments and the EU to work collaboratively on improving the health of our area of the Atlantic Ocean.

The commission publishes periodic reports on the state of our seas, with the last published in 2010. On Wednesday, 28th June, OSPAR published its 2017 report (here). A significant undertaking, the report requires members to coordinate monitoring methods and data analysis over a staggering 47 agreed assessments. These range from the levels of contaminants in our waters, to the health of marine birds and cetaceans.

Kittiwakes (c)Anthony Griffiths

The report is a mixed bag of winners and losers:

Success stories

Progress has certainly been made, with a marked increase in the number of protected areas across the North-East Atlantic, and discharges from both the nuclear and oil and gas sector decreasing due to actions by OSPAR members. There are a greater number of large fish since 2010, indicating that fish communities are starting to recover in some areas.

Room for serious improvement

However, the positive trend is not demonstrated across every aspect of the report. The 2017 assessment shows that marine birds are in trouble. As valuable indicators of the condition of our seas, abundance and breeding success of marine birds are assessed by OSPAR.

For more than a quarter of the seabird species assessed, there has been at least a 20% decline over the last 25 years, with many species showing frequent and widespread breeding failure, especially those species feeding on small fish in the surface waters of the Greater North Sea and Celtic Seas.

We are already experiencing severe seabird declines in the UK. The kittiwake, a surface feeding bird heavily dependent of sandeels in the breeding season, has been decreasing relentlessly in numbers across much of the UK, with some colonies in Scotland down by over 90% since 1986 as seen in the graph below.

The report suggests the availability of prey fish such as sandeel and young herring may be low in some areas, probably as a result of commercial fisheries (past and present) in combination with climate change disrupting the food chain. The significant concerns raised by this assessment are a timely warning that the North-East Atlantic is under mounting pressure and in urgent need of concerted action by OSPAR’s contracting parties.

Securing our seabirds future

If the Governments that share our seas do not work together, we are unlikely to be able to reverse the declines in Britain’s marine birds.

Many of the birds that come to our shores to breed each year disperse widely across the North-East Atlantic, foraging outside the breeding season in the waters of our Danish, Dutch, German and other neighbours. With Britain set to leave the European Union, we must look to our Government to continue to work in partnership with all European coastal nations, to ensure the health our seas improves and their resources are used sustainably.

The good news is that the UK Government agrees. Speaking at the OSPAR commission meeting this week in Cork, Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey set out how the UK will continue to play a leading role in protecting the world's oceans. In a speech to delegates she recognised the need for co-operation and firmly stated that, when it comes to declining marine birds, “the UK is on the case”.

It is our view that reversing the decline in kittiwakes and other marine bird populations means making sure they aren’t adversely affected by commercial exploitation of sandeels and other key forage fish; an important consideration as the UK seeks to establish new laws on commercial fishing of our waters.

Areas of UK waters already designated as marine protected areas, an approach strongly promoted by the OSPAR commission, need to be well managed to help build seabird resilience against the threats flagged by OSPAR. Where areas vital to marine birds remain unprotected, the UK Government must give full consideration to safeguarding them in future.

It also means the UK must work closely with other nations to ensure that at-sea-developments in the North-East Atlantic, from oil and gas to renewable energy, are sustainable and don’t add to the significant pressures already faced by our marine birds.

We welcome the commitments made by the minister, and hope to work closely with her, the UK Government and devolved administrations to improve the fortunes of our marine birds. Whilst improving the health of our seas may appear a vast and daunting challenge, this latest OSPAR report demonstrates that through collaboration we can begin to reverse the damage inflicted by manmade impacts on our seas.