Sometimes it falls from the sky
I heard the sky lark sing;
Sometimes all the little birds that are
How they seemed to fill the sea and the air
With their sweet jargoning!
Globally, seabirds have declined by 70% in the last 50 years and are currently the most endangered group of birds in the world, according to a study by the University of Aberdeen (2018).
Our own groundbreaking work in 2020 to assess and update the status of the EU Red List bird population and the trends of 463 bird species breeding and / or wintering in all EU countries and the UK between 2013 and 2018 showed similar results troubling results. For seabirds, the picture looks bleak overall.
Led by Birdlife International, the latest 2019 global seabird threat review found that the top global threats to seabirds are invasive alien species (mainly introduced mammals, reptiles, plants or birds), by-catch in fishing gear, and climate change. Severe weather Approximately 70% of seabirds, especially endangered species worldwide, face multiple threats.
Across the EU, we note that the current threats to seabirds currently identified by Member States (under Article 12 of the Birds Directive) are in line with global patterns: Invasive alien species, bycatch and recreational activities (sports, tourism and leisure) during the breeding season, while wintering Birds are most threatened by bycatch, prey depletion, and wind, wave and tidal forces. This combination of hazards on land and at sea can make seabirds particularly sensitive to rapid declines in the region, even species with stable or increasing trends and abundant.
But is it all doom and darkness for our ancient world travelers? Let’s take a closer look.
Still endangered: the case of the black-legged kittiwake
This little northern seagull is classified as Endangered as its population is declining over its entire breeding area and it falls in places. It is one of 13 species that have been threatened without changing their status on the Red List since the last EU assessment in 2015.
Human-driven activities impact kittiwake breeding: parents cannot find enough fish to feed their chicks as overfishing and climate change drive their main prey (sand eels and capelins) further north from their nesting cliffs. These birds are stuck between a rock and a hard place. To survive, they can either switch to another prey or try to follow their preferred forage further north. Both options have a negative impact on their breeding success, as the parents have to put more effort into the same diet until they can no longer meet the needs of their chicks, which will ultimately starve to death. To protect these seabirds, it is critical that we monitor more closely the other threats these seabirds face in their wintering areas, such as overfishing, marine pollution and bycatch, to ensure kittiwakes have high quality wintering areas. This is important for them to breed successfully and not be critically endangered.
In decline: the fall of the fulmar
The once widespread fulmar is one of seven species that our latest assessment has placed in a more threatened category in Europe.
Their populations grew in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries thanks to discards from fishing and natural changes in food availability that coincided with a period of warming in the temperate North Atlantic waters. But fulmar populations are now declining, even in places where they used to be abundant. By-catches in some areas could fuel unsustainable trends in local populations and be fatal to adult survival.
Improved Status: The Case of the European Shag
It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as eight species, including the European Shag, have downgraded their threatened status. The European shag, classified as Endangered in 2015, is now classified as Least Concern.
With its signature silhouette perched on coastal rocks and wooden poles to dry their wings after fishing, the coastal and webbed European Shag is a bird many people are familiar with. Although Europe is one of the geographic strongholds of this species, shag chicks suffer from a very low survival rate. The adult population is also at risk from pollution and human activities that are changing their environment. In addition to being victims of climate change and extreme weather conditions, shags are shot and poisoned by fishermen and fish farmers who they view as competitors for resources. Although it looks like the fate of the European shag is certain for the time being, as is the case with all seabirds, it is always hanging by a thread. By monitoring these and other species that are classified as least of concern, we can help prevent future declines.
Keep common species together
The seagull is a least of concern species that, despite its status, has declining trends and a declining EU population status in both the short and long term. This is in line with warnings from scientists who have said that many seabird species could decline rapidly over the next few decades, and some of them are already following this decreasing pattern. If we don’t address the threats to these birds, including climate change, bycatch and overfishing, the very survival of these least concern birds will once again be of great concern.
Thanks to specific protective measures, seabirds that are threatened with extinction have recently recovered. Today we know that targeted protective measures such as the eradication of invasive plants and mammals and the construction of artificial nests have helped improve the short-term population development of the two still threatened petrel species of the Pterodroma family in the Portuguese island of Madeira. The extinction of rats from some Italian islands in Sardinia, Lazio, and Tuscany also contributed to the recovery of the local Yelkouan shearwater (vulnerable) populations.
Sea birds are the link between land, sea and sky. Like all birds, they know no borders. Because of this, sharing responsibility for protecting seabirds is critical for different countries, communities and stakeholders. By combining technical knowledge, political will, and financial sustainability, seabirds can achieve the transformative change they need to survive and thrive again.
According to the latest EU 2020 Red List assessments, 34.5% of EU seabirds are threatened or almost threatened. The percentage of threatened and near-threatened species is similar to the 2015 assessments, although more species were classified as not assessed (N / E) in 2015.