The status of the world’s seabirds has deteriorated rapidly over recent decades, with many populations now dangerously close to extinction, according to a new review by BirdLife International, a partner of the IUCN.
The review also reveals that seabirds are now more threatened than any other group of birds, with 28% of the 346 species being globally threatened and a further 10% listed as Near Threatened.
Almost half of all seabird species are believed to be in decline. The albatross family is particularly at risk, with 17 of the 22 albatross species currently facing extinction.
“This new data details the rapid deterioration of creatures that provide a crucial window onto the condition of the oceans,” says Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Director of the IUCN Global Species Programme. “We must now use this information to enact changes that will reverse the loss of such an important group of species.”
The most significant threat to the world’s seabirds is commercial fishing, which is reducing the fish stocks on which many species depend. In addition, thousands of seabirds are killed every year after becoming caught in fishing gear.
Seabird breeding colonies have also been decimated by invasive, introduced species such as rats and cats, which pose a particular threat to seabirds that breed on only a few small islands.
Further threats to seabirds come from oil spills, plastic waste in the oceans, and the potential effects of climate change.
“Seabirds are a diverse group with worldwide distribution, and as top predators they also provide a valuable indicator of wider marine health,” says Professor John Croxall, Chair of BirdLife’s Global Seabird Programme.
Call for action
There may still be time to reverse seabird declines, and the review is clear on the actions that need to be taken.
In particular, sites where seabirds congregate, such as onshore breeding colonies and offshore feeding grounds, need to be protected. To this end, BirdLife International has already identified many ‘Important Bird Areas’ (IBAs) for seabirds on land, and is planning to publish the first list of marine IBAs. These areas will then be used to develop a global network of Marine Protected Areas, to help manage and protect marine habitats.
Invasive species, particularly rodents, also need to be removed from seabird colonies. Several successful eradication programmes have already taken place, and more are planned.
Finally, more research is needed to fill in gaps in our knowledge of seabird populations and to tackle new, emerging threats to seabirds, such as energy generation projects and the effects of climate change.
Read more on the seabird review at the IUCN.
Find out more about BirdLife International’s Global Seabird Programme.
View photos and videos of albatross, petrel and shearwater species on ARKive.
Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author