The RSPB’s Tony Whitehead describes some recent news on seabird conservation in England …  

The UK is a hugely important place for seabirds, as one might imagine given our wholly maritime position. Around our coasts nest a staggering eight million birds of a wonderful variety, from the ever-popular diminutive puffins to the world’s largest gull, the great black backed. Each has its niche, in an orderly arrangement that makes the most of available space and resources. Of these millions, some occur here in globally important populations, such as the burrow-nesting Manx shearwater.  

However, seabirds have suffered huge declines over the past few decades. Kittiwake numbers for instance have almost halved over the past 15 years according to the UK’s Joint Nature Conservation Committee. Similarly, in Scotland, in a Scottish Natural Heritage survey of a dozen seabird species, it was found that six out of ten had disappeared since 1986.  

Highlighting the importance of our nearshore waters the RSPB last week published the results of tracking data for four species during the breeding season, kittiwake, guillemot, razorbill and shag. The complex maps of the birds tracks as they fly from nest to feeding area highlight that, while all our waters are equal in importance, some are more equal than others - veritable “hotspots” where submarine contours provide ideal places for the fish on which the birds rely.  

Map of kittiwake feeding areasThe study further revealed that the size of these hot-spots was much larger than previously thought, and particularly off the Yorkshire coast. The results, in short, highlight the importance of large areas of UK waters in England for seabirds and demonstrates the urgent need for properly identified and effectively managed marine protected areas.  

For this reason, is was a pleasure to hear last week that the government had declared two new marine Special Protection Areas (SPAs) in England, one an extension of the Teesmouth SPA and the other a brand new one off the Solent and South Dorset Coast. Marine SPAs were established under the original EU Birds Directive from the late 70s, the long-term aim to establish a Europe wide network that identified all our most precious places (alongside similar terrestrial designations). The news last week brought further coherence to that network.  

However, these are to a degree only place markers. They say, “these places should be given special consideration”, but the sea is a competitive environment, with many calls being made on its finite resources, all at a time when our waters are facing increasing pressure from climate breakdown. At the same time as the SPAs were being declared, the Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership published its annual report card on the impact of climate on the sea. It pulled no punches: 
“There is clear evidence that warming seas, reduced oxygen, ocean acidification and sea-level rise are already affecting UK coasts and seas. Increasingly, these changes are having an impact on food webs, with effects seen in seabed-dwelling species, as well as plankton, fish, birds and mammals.” 

Of course, ironically, the oceans resources, particularly in terms of the potential of offshore wind, can be part of the solution to mitigating the worst excesses of climate change, buying us more time to adapt to a climate changed world.  

However, as always, we must balance the clear need for renewables with the potential for their siting and operation to destroy the very thing that, in part, they seek to save. We must not rob Peter to pay Paul.  

For this reason, it is crucial that we work hard on developing strategic, spatial marine planning – doing the right things in the right places. In terms of all the ways in which the sea is used, we need to standardise industry-level regulations to protect wide-ranging seabird species particularly in this context of increased efforts to de-carbonise energy generation in UK waters. Indeed, such a strategic approach will be necessary to reduce all conflicts between provisioning our needs and those of the diverse wildlife with which we share our precious seas.  

Of course, evidence will be at the heart of such planning, which is why, alongside the announcement of the new marine SPAs we also applaud the Environment Minister’s commitment last week to a new Seabird Conservation Strategy for England. We have a wealth of knowledge and data. This combined with a will to make a difference will go a long way to meeting the ecological emergency.  

The map here shows feeding areas of kittiwakes as recorded in the recently published study