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A call for a truly ambitious Seabird Conservation Strategy

Ahead of World Ocean Day, Jacques Villemot, Marine Policy Officer at RSPB, explains the international importance of the UK's seabird populations and calls for an ambitious Seabird Conservation Strategy to be delivered by Government

June 2021

Tomorrow we celebrate World Ocean Day and some of the most emblematic sea critters we can observe in the UK are our seabirds. Our country is particularly important for them, with over 8 million individuals from 26 species breeding on our shores.

Some of these populations are heavily reliant on our coasts, with 68 % of the world's northern gannets, 90% of the world's Manx shearwaters and 60% of the global population of great skuas found in Great Britain and Ireland.

The expansive coastlines of England alone are home to amazing seabirds. We can find the largest mainland seabird colony, extending 17 miles from Bempton Cliffs, with over 300,000 breeding birds. Critically endangered species such as Balearic Shearwater also rely on English waters for foraging.

These seabirds are truly amazing, and some have developed incredible abilities to fish and survive at sea. For example, the aforementioned northern gannet can spot its next meal when soaring up to 45 metres above the water and won’t hesitate to dive at speeds of up to 60 mph to catch it. Equally, the beloved Atlantic puffin is an extremely skilled flyer and can travel at a speed of 55 mph by flapping its wings up to 400 times a minute!

However, our great seabirds are in danger. Globally, their populations have declined by 70% since 1950, making them the most threatened group of birds in the world. The picture is no brighter domestically. Indeed, the 2012 UK Marine Strategy Part One set out targets to reach ‘Good Environmental Status’ for marine biodiversity, but the UK government has failed to meet them. The situation of seabirds is particularly concerning, with most species having actually declined since then, as seen in the updated assessment of the Strategy. The State of Nature 2019 report shows that over half of the species breeding on our shores have decreased since 2009.

This clearly demonstrates crucial flaws in the approach the UK government has taken to marine conservation, and it is urgent they address them. Our seas are degraded from decades of human exploitation and poorly managed activities, including fishing and development.

Combined with the current trajectory of offshore wind deployments in UK waters – a target of 40GW by 2030, three times as much as that installed in the previous decade, rising to up to 100GW by 2050 – this could irreversibly deepen the threats to seabirds if the right steps for their protection aren’t taken in parallel. Indeed, offshore wind developments in the wrong place can impact seabirds in a variety of ways during construction and throughout operation. This includes through collision, disturbance, direct habitat loss, blocking important flight pathways (barrier effects) and loss of access to preferred foraging areas (displacement). Ultimately these impacts, individually or cumulatively via multiple windfarms and other activities and developments, contribute to a further increased mortality and reduced breeding success for our globally important seabird populations.

This is the year for action. Environment Minister Rebecca Pow has declared 2021 to be a ‘Marine Super Year’ and had also committed to deliver a Seabird Conservation Strategy by the end of 2020. The global public-health emergency has shifted priorities, but the strategy is now back on the agenda and it must be delivered swiftly and with ambition if it is to halt seabird decline and allow their recovery. It is a unique opportunity for the UK to show leadership on domestic ocean recovery by delivering for these globally important populations.

World Ocean Day is an occasion to celebrate our rich marine biodiversity. With all these ambitious Government commitments, we hope to report next year on our wonderful seabirds’ recovery rather than their decline!

Jacques Villemot is a Marine Policy Officer at RSPB Follow: @RSPBEngland

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.