A new 'How to' Guide for England - Saving our Seabirds Edition

Razorbill (c) Ben Andrews rspb-images.com

Todays post comes from Marine Policy Officer, Samuel Wrobel, he explains the global importance of the UK for seabirds and considers the potential of the new England Seabird Conservation and Recovery Pathway to help stem their decline.

The UK is a global seabird hotspot. Our 50,000km of coastlines and over 4,000 islands are home to internationally important seabird species. These unique birds are the few that have mastered land, air and sea, providing many of us with that long sought after connection from solid ground to the rolling ocean. Our fortunate position as host nation to such globally significant seabirds means we have a central role in safeguarding these species and ensure they continue to thrive – not only for population success but for ecosystem health and climate mitigation.

But as we know, the past few decades have not been kind to our seabirds. We now have the latest figures from the Seabirds Count (2015-2021) and it shows almost 62% of seabird species in decline across the UK and declines across 70% of species in Scotland, our seabird stronghold. Worryingly this data was collected prior to the severe outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) which will have only made matters worse. Unfortunately, human activity lies at the heart of many of the drivers of decline, we’re seeing increased pressures from climate change, unsustainable fishing practices and increased offshore development which are essentially overloading the environment – think of it like stretching an elastic band, each pressure is another pull on the band, eventually will snap.

Habitat loss around our ‘soft coasts’ is a real threat to breeding colonies where sea level rise, storminess or developments are causing increased threats to populations. But we know active conservation efforts can change the fortunes of these species. RSPB’s work at Wallasea Island, in Essex, is a 700Ha coastal habitat creation project now supporting hundreds of Common Tern and Black-headed Gulls. Or on Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel rapidly becoming an ever-increasing seabird  hotspot since the eradication of Brown and Black rat in 2001-2004. The latest figures show Manx Shearwaters have gone from strength to strength at just 500 pairs pre-eradication, to now over 25,000 birds.

This demonstrates that conservation work, when planned and implemented well, truly works for seabirds. But we absolutely must see this amplified at scale, is this something the new Seabird Conservation and Recovery Pathway for England can deliver?

Seabird Conservation and Recovery Pathway: England leading the way?

The England Seabird Conservation and Recovery Pathway (or ESCaRP for short) has just been launched; this provides a framework document outlining the needs of seabirds. Each country within the UK has been in the process of developing their own conservation strategy to not only halt declines, but drive the recovery of seabirds, but many of these are considerably delayed in publication and delivery, whilst our seabird populations continue to decline.

ESCaRP  is essentially a “How To” guide for recovering England’s seabirds. England’s colonies have been assessed for their sensitivity and vulnerability to a series of pressures for the past few years, resulting in a comprehensive plan outlining the measures intended to drive recovery. England’s plan will focus on 4 key areas: feeding, measures focusing on prey availability and safe access to foraging sites; breeding, safeguarding the colony sites; surviving, reducing impacts from activities such as fishing and offshore wind development; and knowledge, ensuring feedback loops are in place to continuously monitor, measure and improve measures.

Fulmar (c)Ben Andrews rspb-images.com

But is it enough?

Publication of this strategy is a significant step in the right direction for seabirds, but will it deliver change? Last week was a monumental week for seabirds with the permanent closure of industrial sandeel fishing in the English North Sea and Scottish waters, this must be the new baseline for conservation measures, driving momentum to deliver at scale the changes needed for seabirds to drive their recovery.

Whilst the focus of this strategy is good, the stark situation we have put our seabirds in requires more ambition and more urgency. The aftermath of the past two years of HPAI is still being understood, and who knows what the 2024 breeding season will bring. ESCaRP begins to unravel this knowledge gap and sets out short term actions, however the disparity in the severity of HPAI versus how ESCaRP will inject the changes needed on the water must be addressed. What is clear, is we must see changes delivered and at pace to reverse decline.

Seabirds have an essential role to play in the marine ecosystem, as top predators they’re what we call indicator species, their declines show a failing environment, but equally ambitious measures to reverse declines will build resilience and health into the environment. ESCaRP can and must be the springboard to launch us into a new era of nature protection, one that matches ambition alongside climate and energy targets, delivering at unprecedented scale and at pace. The next 5 years are crucial in delivering this change, it’s time UK Government put frameworks into action, and we’re here to help drive this change every step and wing beat of the way.