Northern Gannet adult in flight, (c) Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Senior Policy Officer, Bernadette Butfield, reflects on the recent findings from the Seabird Census (2015-2021), discusses the state of seabird populations across the devolved administrations, and outlines the critical steps that need to be taken to safeguard the future of our seabirds.
Seabirds in the UK are in crisis. The Seabird Census (2015-2021) is a comprehensive survey of 25 breeding seabirds species in the British Isles. The survey is led by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) with input and support from other partner organisations, including the RSPB.
The Seabird Census (2015-2021) reveals that many globally important seabird populations across the UK continue to decline at an alarming rate. We need governments in each of the four countries to take urgent and ambitious action to restore and protect our globally important seabirds before it is too late.
Seabird populations in the UK face a complex web of pressures that continue to drive declines, namely climate change, fishing activity and predation from invasive alien species. Such pressures are driven by human activity. We therefore urgently need each of the four governments to deliver Seabird Conservation Strategies and change the trajectory of declines for seabird populations. These are comprehensive plans to address population declines and manage pressures, to deliver recovery for seabirds.
In Scotland, home to the largest populations of internationally important seabirds in the UK, the Seabird Census (2015-2021) results show dramatic declines across 70% of the species in the past two decades. Adding to the concern, the census does not account for the devastating impact of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), which began in 2021. The Seabird Census fieldwork was completed before the outbreak, and the full extent of the impact is still being assessed.
Species such as Northern Gannets had shown increases before HPAI, these gains are likely to have now halted for some colonies. So far, survey work in 2023 has shown a 35% decline in breeding Northern Gannets at RSPB Troup Head. In addition, the Northern Gannet population on Bass Rock has shown a decline of 25-30%, largely attributed to HPAI. Beyond Scotland, 2023 survey work on RSPB Grassholm in Wales has revealed a 52% decline in the Gannet population there, bringing it down to a low not seen since 1969.
Great Skuas (or Bonxies) are also showing an increase in the Seabird Census (2015-2021) data, but this species was hit extremely hard by HPAI in summers 2021 and 2022 with initial analysis suggesting severe declines at some sites. These are just some examples of the species affected by HPAI in 2021/22, and 2023 is the third consecutive year our seabirds have been hit by the disease, with the worst impacts this year seen in Black-headed Gulls, Kittiwakes, Guillemots and terns. So far, 21 of our regularly breeding seabird species have tested positive for the virus. We will have a better understanding of the population-level impacts of the 2021/22 outbreak on target species once analysis of the data from our 2023 HPAI survey work is finalised.
HPAI highlights how rapidly changes can occur in populations, their fragility and a need for effective conservation strategies.
Protection and management offer a beacon of hope
In Wales, the results suggest slight increases in Atlantic Puffin populations since 2000 offering a glimmer of hope. However, this recovery must be viewed in the context of historic declines, and the numbers remain below pre-1939 levels. Much of these increases can be attributed to well-managed breeding sites in Wales, such as Skomer Island. Yet a lack of diverse and geographic range of breeding sites, means that much of the population in Wales is held on a single site. Seabird population resilience is greater when they occupy multiple colonies.
In England, increases for some species can be attributed to conservation efforts in important breeding sites, like Lundy Island off the Devon coast. Prior to 2000, Brown and Black rats meant that seabird numbers were dwindling. However, since the Island Restoration project to eradicate these invasive predators in 2001-2004, the numbers of breeding seabirds, such as Manx Shearwaters, have increased enormously. This year whole islands seabird counts were completed, and the number of Manx Shearwaters has increased from just 500 pairs pre-restoration, to now over 25,000 birds – accounting for 95% of England’s breeding population. These numbers demonstrate how conservation efforts make a huge difference, but now we need to see matched ambition from the UK Government. The waters surrounding Lundy, and used by these splendid seabirds, currently lack any sort of protection, we need to see sites as important as Lundy become part of the protected sites network.
In Northern Ireland the results highlight significant population declines in internationally important breeding populations, with a 57% decrease in Northern Fulmar and a 71% drop in Atlantic Puffin since the last census. These vulnerable species are found on Northern Ireland’s largest seabird colony, Rathlin Island. Many of the internationally important assemblage of breeding seabirds of the Rathlin Island SPA are facing multiple pressures that have resulted in declines, including the threat from invasive non-native species such as rats and ferrets. The LIFE Raft project aims to address this challenge through eradication of invasive species and is the first global seabird conservation project to attempt a feral ferret eradication. It will also be one of the largest islands in the world to be cleared of rats without the use of helicopters and one of the most populous islands to undergo an eradication project of this scale. It is hoped that these conservation efforts will give seabirds on Rathlin a lifeline, providing more space for nature and allowing vulnerable populations to bounce back like we’ve seen on other coastal islands such as Lundy.
Such pockets of hope evidence the potential to restore species, with an incredible impact if planned strategically and resourced. It is therefore critical to maintain momentum and expand protection to other important bird areas, through the delivery of management measures in existing Seabird Protected Areas and other forms of protected site designations.
Manx Shearwater, (c) Greg Morgan (rspb-images.com)
Seabirds are on the frontline of the climate and nature emergency and as such are indicators of ecosystem health, declining seabird populations evidence the poor state of our marine environment, where at present 11/15 indicators that measure environmental status are failing. The Seabird Census (2015-2021) results underscore the urgency of taking action to save our seabird populations. The census in particular highlights the fragility of our seabirds, where species were believed to be doing well, change can occur and they are not immune to threats like HPAI, emphasising the need to build species resilience. With declines largely driven by human activities, it is critical that we deliver urgent, ambitious action to reverse the decline of these magnificent creatures and ensure the restoration of healthy, resilient seas for nature and people.
The RSPB calls on the UK Government and Devolved Administrations to act decisively before it's too late, all seabird conservation strategies across the four UK countries have met with delays. Seabirds are not just a symbol of our coastlines; they are a vital part of the complex tapestry of life in our oceans.
The priority actions needed to secure seabird recovery and achieve healthy seas urgently are:
1. Delivery of Seabird Conservation Strategies by 2024
2. Closure of UK waters to the industrial sandeel fishery, and taking wider action to protect seabird prey species,
3. Introducing effective measures to eliminate and monitor seabird deaths from bycatch in fishing gear,
4. Developing and funding a rolling programme of island restoration and biosecurity legacy,
5. Adopting a Nature Positive Planning approach to offshore wind that frontloads action for nature,
6. Protecting marine birds on land and at sea through effective and appropriate site designation and management, and
7. Acknowledgement that Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) is a major human-generated threat to wildlife and adopt comprehensive national response plans in each country for wild birds.
Atlantic Puffing with food, (c) Katie Nethercoat (rspb-images.com)
More information about HPAI: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/avian-influenza-updates
LIFE Raft Project: https://rathlin360.com/
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