Jared Diamond, EO Wilson and others have had various attempts to summarise the major threats facing biodiversity.  We tend to describe them as habitat destruction, over-exploitation, pollution (including increasing greenhouse gas emissions resulting in climate change) and the introduction of non-native species all driven by a growing population consuming more.  These pressures on the natural world have been referred to to as the four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse.

There is a fifth, which is everything else.

I was reminded of this following reports of the winter storms leading to the deaths of 28,000 seabirds (see here).

While there is a debate about the strengths of the links of climate change to the recent storms and therefore whether one of the original four horsemen is responsible for this seabird tragedy, the point I want to make is that when populations are vulnerable, extreme weather events can compound existing problems and can create more jeopardy for some species. 

We know that our internationally important populations of seabirds are already under pressure because their staple summer diet of sandeels is in decline in response to sea warming, another result of climate change.  This makes it a struggle to find enough food for themselves and their chicks. Sea warming, along with winter storms, which make it hard for birds to find fish in continually turbulent seas, simply make matters worse.

So what should we do about it?  

Well, we need to continue to invest effort in monitoring what is happening to our seabirds but also take the necessary action on land to protect key breeding sites and eradicate non-native invasive species particularly on islands.  Governments across the UK, despite funding cuts, need to continue to invest in these areas.  

We need to prevent pollution incidents at sea (which is why we were delighted that the International Maritime Organisation banned the discharge of that nasty sticky substance, polyisobutylene, last year - see here).

We also need to protect our seabird populations when they are foraging for food by designating marine protected areas (for example see here) and to guide development at sea (particularly windfarms, oil and gas exploration but also shipping and fishing) so that it does not cause needless harm.  These are also the responsibilities of governments but industry does, of course, have a part to play..

And, we need to continue to wean ourselves off fossil fuels to reduce the risk of climate chaos. And that's something for all of us.

The reality is, we all need to do much more to help our seabirds cope with whichever of the horsemen of the apocalypse come charging at them.

  • Absolutely right Martin. I think your third paragraph from the bottom is especially pertinent. When a disaster occurs such as this recent one, there is often not a single cause when one looks carefully at the reasons. In this case, while of course I don't have the evidence to hand,it is probably likely that these sea birds prior to the recent storms, were already under nourished and that the storms were the secondary impact with which they were not able to cope due to their weak condition.If they had been in good condition these birds could reasonably have been be expected to come through the storms with only a few fatalities.

    All this is just another strong indicator on how important marine conservation is in this age of global warming and how damaged and impoverished our seas are becoming. Many more Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ)should be designated, many more than the pathetic number so far designated by this Government. Will this mass death of sea birds act as a wake up call to the Government on this subject? - perhaps, but I doubt it very much.