World Ocean Day 2021: What does it take to save seabirds in Scotland? 

To celebrate this year’s World Ocean Day theme ‘Life and Livelihoods’, we spoke to some of the wonderful people working to save our special seas at RSPB Scotland.  

Today marks World Ocean Day, and we’ve got so much to celebrate in Scotland. Our sea area is six times larger than the land, we’ve got an astonishing 10% of Europe’s coastline, over 900 islands and they are of course a huge part of our cultural heritage. On that basis alone, it’s not surprising that Scotland is a firm favourite with over 5 million seabirds, from tail-streaming terns to soaring shearwaters. Totted up, our breeding seabirds account for a huge 70% of the UK’s total seabird population.  

Although these statistics are pretty impressive, seabird numbers in Scotland have actually plummeted by 38% in the last few decades. This trend is really important, because as top predators, seabirds give us a signal of our ocean’s health. What’s clear is that our seabirds are in trouble and need our help, so we’re working hard to save them. 

Key threats to seabirds in Scotland: climate change, invasive species, inappropriate development at sea, lack of food, bycatch

To tell you a bit more about what this means in practice, we asked some of the amazing people at RSPB Scotland to give us an insight into their roles, and how their work helps to protect our iconic ocean wanderers. We could do a whole series on all the different things we get up to trying to make the world a safer place for our seabirds, but for now this blog provides a bit of a sneak peek into the exciting world of seabird conservation.  

The Seabird Conservation Scientist 

Ellie Owen and Tessa Cole analysing seabird data on a laptop. They are outside at night.

My name is Ellie Owen and I’m a Seabird Conservation Scientist. My favourite day of the year is ‘jumpling day’; a calm evening in summer when the guillemot and razorbill chicks are ready to leave their lofty cliff-top nest ledges and enter the sea via a huge and gutsy leap and tumble. The focus of my work is understanding how to support seabird populations, either through tracking them to find out how to protect their foraging areas, through counting them (yes, it is as fiddly as it sounds!), or working out what they are eating and how this might be changing with climate change and other threats. This means that my job can be very varied, one day I will be catching seabirds on a remote cliff, the next I could be writing code to analyse data, next I might be working with #puffarazzi volunteers or sharing our findings through giving talks. One excellent thing about being a scientist within the RSPB is that we can work closely with policy and advocacy colleagues, meaning that any new findings we discover can be fast-tracked for use in conservation and species management.  

The Warden 

Lorna on a boat in front of impressive seabird cliffs

My name is Lorna Dow and I’m a Warden for the north east Scotland Coastal Reserves. Our small team look after five RSPB reserves that are home to some amazing seabirds, including common terns and gannets. Choosing a favourite seabird is a difficult task as there are so many I love, but if I had to pick one it would be fulmars – so much character and masters of the air! A highlight of my job is just about to start - monitoring the seabirds at RSPB Fowlsheugh. It is a Special Protection Area (SPA) and is a huge colony of over 93,000 birds. Census plots are counted every year giving us a snapshot of the birds that have returned, without having to count the whole cliff. We also monitor kittiwake plots, following the fortunes of pairs on their nests. These long-term data sets allow us to track how the colony is fairing and contributes to the national understanding of what’s happening to our seabirds. It’s always a privilege to get to join the birds during their breeding season and on a personal level, visiting seabird colonies always brings me a lot of happiness. They are often noisy, smelly, awe inspiring places that can’t help but lift the spirits.  

The Seabird Field Researcher 

Jack standing on a clifftop with the sea behind him

My name is Jack Barton and I am working as a Research Assistant in Shetland, counting seabirds for the Seabirds Count National Seabird Census 2015 - 2021. I am very lucky that my job involves travelling around Shetland counting seabirds such as tysties (black guillemots), bonxies (great skuas) and storm petrels (my personal favourite) that come here in their hundreds and thousands to breed. Seabirds are under threat from several factors including overfishing, climate change and marine plastics so it is vitally important that numbers are monitored to see which populations are most at risk. Being able to journey around much of Shetland’s stunningly scenic and remote coastline via boat has been a job highlight! 

The Bycatch Project Officer 

Yann holding a guillemot

My name is Yann Rouxel and I am the Bycatch Project Officer for the RSPB and BirdLife International. My favourite birds are common guillemots – penguin-like seabirds which breed here in the UK! In my work, I am looking at finding solutions to the bycatch (accidental capture) of seabirds from fisheries around the globe. A very serious conservation issue for those birds. Last year, we collaborated with UK fishing vessels using longlines in the North of Scotland to better understand why their fishing gear is catching so many of them. By deploying tiny measuring devices on the line, we understood that the baited hooks were simply sinking too slowly to be safe from seabirds’ reach. We are now working with regulators and industry so that actions can be taken to tackle this problem. The best part of my job is working with people from all over the world and trying to make our ocean a little bit safer for our feathered friends! 

The Outdoor Learning Officer 

Holly diving underwater. She has goggles, a snorkel, and a wetsuit on. The water is very clear and she is surrounded by seaweed.

My name is Holly Peek and I am the Outdoor Learning Officer, based in Orkney. My favourite seabird would have to be an equal tie between northern gannets and their punk rocker eyeliner, northern fulmars with their naturally inquisitive minds and tysties (black guillemots) with their bright red feet. All of these birds are plentiful on Orkney and I love watching the different personalities come out whilst they are feeding, following dolphins or dealing with bonxies (great skua). Orkney is home to a variety of different species and habitats and its my job to enthuse the conservationists of the future about them. I must admit though, my favourite habitat, and the place where all my favourite wildlife can be found is at the coast. I am yet to find a child that doesn’t audibly gasp when learning how big orcas can grow or get excited when they see a group of gannets diving into the sea at 60 mph. I love talking about our incredible seas and their importance to us to anyone who will listen. I think its particularly important to get that message across to a younger audience, after all in 10-20 years time they will be the ones making decisions that impact this precious habitat. 

 

You can dive even deeper into our work on seabirds by checking out our videos on island biosecurity and restoration, marine policy, reserves management and (sea)birding. To find opportunities to get involved you can head to our local groups and volunteering pages for more information. 

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