Dire Straits – is Europe protecting its seabirds?

(Gui-Xi Young 7 June 2017; Photo: Wes Davis)

A new scientific paper, spearheaded by our Head of Conservation, Iván Ramírez, has been published in the peer-reviewed journal ‘Marine Policy’. This study summarises the latest country-by-country and species-specific analyses of the EU’s

marine SPA (Special Protection Areas) network and offers critical new insights into how well Europe is protecting its seabirds.


With oceans covering 71% of the Earth’s surface, it is small wonder that our little home in the solar system is often called the ‘Blue Planet’. Yet so much of our ocean environment remains a mystery. But indeed, isn’t that the romance of the big blue expanse that we are celebrating today, on ‘World Oceans Day’. A romance that has inspired explorers from Cook to Cousteau, storytellers from Homer to Hemmingway…and, of course, conservationists seeking to fathom the depths.

Sadly, on the flip side, the conservation of marine biodiversity is – in the words of Ivan Ramirez, Head of Conservation at BirdLife Europe & Central Asia – “a challenging enterprise”. To say the least. Many marine species are incredibly difficult to observe or track and there is an inherent lack of data and research resources in many countries, both here in Europe and globally.

The Desertas petrel…all at sea

Take the Desertas petrel, for example, a recently split species listed as Vulnerable because of its small population. Ramírez and his colleagues have been tracking this species yearly since 2007, and have now accumulated one of the largest tracking datasets of any gadfly petrel in the world (available at seabirdtracking.org)! What the tiny loggers attached to the bird’s legs revealed to them was quite amazing: from its remote breeding grounds in Bugio Island (Madeira), the Desertas petrel performs a truly Atlantic “tour” with individuals wintering in as many as five different locations, identified in Cape Verde, Brazil, Argentina and Florida. Ramírez has also found that these birds are very loyal to their winter grounds – that is, if a particular bird likes the Brazilian Coast, it will go there every single year.

But the Desertas petrel, just as many other seabirds, does not tend to concentrate at sea forming “rafts” (i.e. flocks of seabirds), nor does it chase fishing vessels like other seabird species, such as gulls or shearwaters. It is also notoriously hard to spot out on the open ocean – so how do we make sure that such a species, once it leaves its breeding grounds, gets the protection it deserves?

The conservation challenges associated with the Desertas petrel – incidentally, the very subject of Ramírez’ own PhD thesis – is an excellent case in point. And quite appropriately so, for with its dark cap and distinctive dark ‘M’-shaped pattern across its wings, it certainly fits the bill for a seabird superhero! Its study offers useful insight into why Europe’s seabirds are in such dire straits – alarmingly, they are the most threatened bird group in the world – and how we can better protect them.

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