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World Ocean Forum

Breakthrough Seabird Discovery

By Paul J. Baicich for World Ocean Forum

For many decades, bird researchers and conservationists have been challenged by the mysteries of seabirds. By default, studies were historically limited to accessible nesting sites and nearby feeding areas. For example, and within the last half century, some very impressive mapping of Alaskan seabird nesting-sites documented the cliffs, islands, and shorelines throughout the state’s coast. These were especially revealing, with findings along the entire Aleutian chain made available in the mid-1970s.

But many seabird species would, of course, spend most of their life cycle at sea, coming ashore when nesting and only when old enough!

Migration routes, more mysterious, were a conundrum, with the hardy birds traveling thousands of miles across state and international waters, and exposed to the accumulating human impacts in the oceans: overfishing, bycatch, and plastic and oil pollution. Exact migration routes, over vast oceans, were often simply surmised.

The same goes for seabird wintering areas, of course: vast oceans, vast unknowns.

Meanwhile, a system of regional and national “Important Bird Area” inventories grew — driven by BirdLife International standards. * These IBAs, originally helpful for terrestrial and freshwater environments, would only slide into concern for “nearshore” ocean habitats with irregularity. This served to further illustrate the open gaps in our seabird knowledge.

*Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) are sites of international significance for the conservation of the world’s birds and other wildlife. These sites are also all Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), sites that contribute significantly to the global persistence of biodiversity.

Far-pelagic information was essentially unavailable. It was almost a situation of Hic sunt dracones (“Here be dragons”) gracing medieval maps with dragons or sea monsters on the uncharted areas where potential and wholly imagined dangers were thought to exist. Besides, the work necessary has often been based — and hampered — by traditional national jurisdictions.

By default, and not design, bird habitat conservation for the high seas received relatively little attention, mostly due to the lack of universally recognized mechanisms with which to work. There were some meaningful exceptions, often surrounding islands or island nation zones. One example in the first decade of this century, a case with bird-conservation implications, was the creation of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Created under U.S. President George W. Bush, it was the largest area of ocean protection in the world, measuring 195,000 square miles.

Still, the consequences for bird conservationists have been obvious: slow, irregular, and difficult to justify.

Since marine species and habitats receive low levels of bird conservation efforts, and since the effective protections also lag behind those for land-bound habitats, there has been a lot of catching up to do.

Fortunately, in early August of this year, a team of almost 80 authors published a study in Conservation Letters, a publication of the Society of Conservation Biology, a study that may mark a serious change in our view of bird life at sea.

This new work, “Multispecies Tracking Reveals a Major Seabird Hotspot in the North Atlantic,” reports that millions of seabirds spend winters in the North Atlantic in a 220,000-square-mile “hotspot” southeast of Greenland and northwest of Newfoundland. As winter nears, many seabirds that nest in colonies along Atlantic coastlines will launch themselves over the open ocean. The obvious and enduring questions have been: Where in that vast ocean do they go? Could they possibly concentrate somewhere? We now have some helpful answers due to recent analyses of seabird tracking information compiled by these biologists from around the world.

By analyzing more than 2,000 seabird movement records from the winter season collected from the BirdLife Seabird Tracking Database, these researchers have estimated that between 2.9 million and 5 million seabirds from over 20 species will converge in an area of ocean about the size of France. These birds originate from scores of colonies in 25 Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs) from both the North and South Atlantic. Their concentration illustrates a first-time discovery of this magnitude on the high seas. In the words of the authors, it is an “important hotspot of unexpected extent and temporal stability.”

This possibility has been facilitated through advances in bio-logging technology. Individual tracking, with bird-attached devices is becoming an indispensable tool guiding conservation efforts. The researchers combine tracking, life-cycle, and known population data to arrive at a satisfying conclusion. By identifying areas of high species diversity and abundance (“hotspots”), critical areas for species survival (e.g., molting or feeding) can be prioritized for conservation. Indeed, while nesting colonies in the North Atlantic have been afforded good protection, the “rest of the story” can now be addressed. There is surely an urgent need to find these important marine areas to counteract the recent declines of threatened seabird species.

The primary species found in the zone included Atlantic Puffins, Dovekies, Common Murres, Thick-billed Murres, and Black-legged Kittiwakes, which together make up more than 3/4 of all North Atlantic seabirds. With a real response, this may help inform the urgent need to identify and protect vital marine areas for key seabird species.

This information is exciting biologists, conservationists, and policy makers as they get a peek into one of the persistent mysteries of seabirds. The information assembled can be instrumental in help prioritize seabird conservation efforts, now and in the future. Once the new UN Treaty for the high seas has been adopted, using this this approach for different regions and species may prove invaluable

Review the article’s findings in Conservation Letters.

Paul J. Baicich is a bird-conservationist, writer, and political activist living in Maryland. He last wrote an article for us, “The Civilian Coastal Conservation Corps,” in June 2020, re-posted in February 2021 in the World Ocean Journal.

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