The images of seabirds covered in a gluey substance known as polyisobutene (PIB) are horrendous.  This pollution incident is yet another reminder of the many and varied threats wildlife faces from human activity.  And it ought to act as a kick up the backside of those responsible for trying to improve protection of our seabirds and other sealife.

We now know hundreds of seabirds have died on the south coast of England from two pollution incidents involving PIBs this year. My colleague, Pete Exley, was down at Lantic Bay on Friday filming with BBC news on a beach that has borne the brunt of this disaster.  He didn't mince his words... 

My first thought when I saw birds covered in PIB was what an absolute b*****d of a substance. One of the locals who has been documenting the unfolding tragedy was helping us with filming. She’d gone down to check a neighbouring beach and found scores more bodies - a fresh influx. The birds were all guillemots, and smothered - imagine a very thick PVA glue, white and lumpy, and very adhesive. Everything sticks to it, so the birds were plastered with bits of rubbish, seaweed, flotsam. Imagine diving into a tub of PVA then rolling along the high tide line - you'll get the picture.”

BTO Image Library

While our short term priority is to help others with the clean up operation, we've also joined forces with the RSPCA and The Wildlife Trusts to call on Transport Minister, Stephen Hammond MP, to ban the discharge of PIBs.  It can be legal to discharge PIB when ships wash out their tanks at sea, but these permissions are based on tests carried out under laboratory conditions. Bizarrely, there is no consideration of what happens when the chemical meets sea water, beyond whether the substance floats or sinks. In the sea, however, the polyisobutene transforms into a glue-like, ‘waxy’ formation, coating the feathers of birds, preventing them from diving and finding food. The longer-term effects of legal PIB releases on other parts of the marine environment are largely unknown.

The natural world is bombarded by threats we describe as the five horsemen of the apocalypse: habitat destruction, overexploitation/persecution, introduction of non-native species, pollution (especially climate change) and everything else!

We should, of course, be banning ships from discharging PIBs at sea and tackling other threats to marine wildlife.  But we should also ensure the best places are properly protected.  Successive governments have promised a network of marine protected areas yet the current suite of sites is woefully inadequate.  These MPAs won't in themselves prevent pollution incidents.  But what they will do is provide safe havens for marine species buying them time to adapt to whatever environmental changes come their way.

As the weather warms up and our minds turn to days spent ambling on the beach, spare a thought for what may be happening beneath the waves.  Expect better and help us do something about it.