Friday 25th September, 2015
A new study finds that the world’s seabird populations have plummeted by almost 70% in just 60 years.
Every day for sixty million years, seabirds have performed mind-boggling acts of derring-do: circumnavigating the globe without rest, diving more than 200 meters in treacherous seas for a bite of lunch, braving the most unpredictable weather on the planet as if it were just another Tuesday and finding their way home in waters with few, if any, landmarks.
But now seabirds, like so many other species, may have met their match.
Conservationists have long known that many seabird populations are in decline, but a recent paper in PLOS ONE finds the situation worse than anticipated. According to the researchers, seabird abundance has dropped 69.7% in just 60 years – representing the deaths of some 230 million animals.
“I was very surprised with the result, it was considerably greater than I’d expected,” said Edd Hammill, co-author of the paper, with Utah State University. “What we should take away from this is that something is serious amiss in the oceans.”
Ben Lascelles, a Senior Marine Officer with Birdlife International, who was not involved in the study, said he found the research alarming because the decline appeared practically indiscriminate, hitting a “large number of species across a number of families.”
Seabirds, which include any bird that depends largely on the marine environment, comprise nearly 350 species worldwide – an astonishing variety of extreme-loving birds. For example, the indefatigable wandering albatross, which sports the largest wingspan on the planet; the child-sized Emperor penguin, the only bird that breeds during the Antarctic winter; and the tiny storm petrel that practically capers on the water as it feeds – they are named for St. Peter after all.
But, given that seabirds inhabit both the open ocean and the shoreline, this eclectic mix of birds faces a litany of threats: overfishing, drowning in fishing lines or nets, plastic pollution, invasive species like rats in nesting areas, oil and gas development and toxic pollution moving up the food chain. And as if these weren’t enough, the double-whammy of climate change and ocean acidification threatens to flood nesting sites and disrupt food sources.
“Seabirds are particularly good indicators of the health of marine ecosystems,” explained lead author, Michelle Paleczny with the University of British Columbia and the Sea Around Us Project. “When we see this magnitude of seabird decline, we can see there is something wrong with marine ecosystems. It gives us an idea of the overall impact we’re having.”
Bu with such a large number of species across such a wide variety of environment one is left asking: how did the scientists count so many birds?
First, the team of researchers scoured all the population data on seabirds available. They found demographic data on 3,213 populations. But they couldn’t use all of theses counts, since conservationists had surveyed many of these far-flung populations just once or twice – not enough to show a real trend
The team eventually selected 513 populations that had been counted at least five times. In all, these populations represented about 19 percent of the world’s seabirds.
Still, Hammil said he believes the team’s findings “are an accurate representation of what is happening worldwide.”
He added, “although we did not include every population, all seabird families were included, and we included populations from every major coastline in the world.”
Paleczny also said that when the researchers looked at the differences between monitored and unmonitored populations, they saw “no evidence that the monitored populations are declining more.”
The findings are also bolstered by past research. In 2012 a paper in Bird Conservation International found that 28 percent of seabird species are threatened with extinction with 47 percent in decline. This meant, in all, seabirds were about twice as likely as land-based birds to be threatened with extinction.
“The trends for many seabird species have clearly been downwards for a number of years, and this paper provides further evidence of this,” Lascelles said.
Still, Paleczny and Hammil’s research arguably paints an even more alarming picture of the state of the world’s seabirds. For example, according to them, the tern family has fallen by 85%, frigatebirds by 81%, petrels and shearwaters by 79%, and albatrosses by 69%.
Such dismal findings point to one of the study’s patterns: open ocean birds – such as albatrosses, frigatebirds, petrels and shearwaters – are generally faring worse than birds that stick near the coasts.
“[Open-ocean] seabirds are hit especially hard due to their large geographic ranges. Because these species travel so far, there is a greater chance they will encounter threats,” said Hammill who noted that coastal birds “in some cases” are doing better because of improved management of breeding areas and improved fishing gear.
But even when threats were minimised, Lascelles noted that recovery requires diligence and patience.
“Most seabirds are long-lived and slow reproducing, this means even quite small increases in mortality can lead to significant population declines, which they take a long time to recover from.”
And even some widely-dispersed coastal birds are undergoing heavy declines. For example, the study found that cormorant and shag populations have fallen by 73%.
Given all the threats facing the world’s seabirds, it’s fair to ask: where do we start when it comes to conservation?
“We already have solutions to many of the threats...it’s just they need scaling up and implementing across industries and geographies,” Lascelles said. “Increased efforts should be made to rid seabird colonies of invasive species, reduce bycatch in fisheries or the ensnaring of birds in fish nets, and setting up conservation areas.”
Paleczny also called for the creation of international marine protected areas to cover the wide ranges of seabirds.
Protected areas in the oceans lag far behind those on land. Currently, only 2% of the world’s oceans are under some form of protection and less than half of those ban fishing altogether. In contrast, nearly 15% of the world’s terrestrial landscape is protected.
With so little of the ocean theoretically closed to fisheries – less than 1% – it’s hardly shocking that many seabirds are suffering from overfishing. Indeed, an illuminating study from 2012 found that whenever fish abundance dropped below one-third of maximum levels, seabird populations began to fall in response.
“What this is saying is that [seabirds] have evolved to exploit average to above-average feeding conditions,” co-author Ian Boyd told Mongabay in 2012. “This isn’t really very surprising, but some things don’t become obvious until the evidence is right in front of you.”
At the time, Boyd said their findings should result in a new campaign to save “one third for the birds” (and other marine predators) from the world’s fisheries.
But to Hammill the “most pressing issue” is plastic pollution.
Long neglected by environmentalists – perhaps due to the intractability of the problem – the issue of plastic pollution in the oceans has been slowly getting more notice. A paper released last month found that 90% of the world’s seabirds likely have plastic in their stomachs.
“I have seen everything from cigarette lighters...to bottle caps to model cars. I’ve found toys [inside seabird guts],” co-author Denise Hardesty, with CSIRO, told the Associated Press.
Seabirds continually mistake plastic for fish eggs, devouring large amounts. Plastic in animals’ stomachs not only release deadly toxins, but can also lead to slow starvation by obstructing the animals’ bowels. Birds even feed plastic bits to their young, killing their fledglings en masse.
In the end, large-scale actions to help seabirds could also go a long way in cleaning-up our increasingly trashed marine ecosystems.
“The oceans are still woefully under protected and fisheries need greater management and enforcement. All of these activities need investment and support of governments around the world to make them happen,” Lascelles said. “These actions will build resilience in the seabird populations in the short term, which they need in the face of emerging threats such as climate change.”
Friday 4th September, 2015
Doubtful Sound came up trumps yet again for last weekend’s Real Journeys’ Cruise-for-a-Cause and its chosen charity, the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust.
The persistent drizzle, Fiordland is a rain forest after all, was just what was needed to produce a totally memorable atmosphere for this shake-down cruise in preparation for the start of the new tourist season. Everything went according to plan and the full complement of 72 guests revelled in the sublime natural setting.
Those on board had heard about the trip through the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust’s networks, some having come from as far away as Auckland and the Manawatu.
The trip began in Manapouri where the guests gathered to board a Real Journeys’ vessel to take them across the lake, followed by a coach ride over Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove. There, we boarded Fiordland Navigator for the start of a truly spectacular 24-hour trip in one of New Zealand’s most remarkable places.
This trip was the final preparation for Real Journeys’ staff before the tourism season begins. And what a team! Their enthusiasm for the wonders of the fiords, wildlife, weather and even the sandflies (not that they were too bad) was infectious.
Saturday’s clearing skies provided a different appreciation of the splendour of the area. Afternoon activities included an optional kayak, small boat cruise or even a polar plunge, which about a dozen brave souls took on in mere 8.9O waters! Hot showers and soup immediately after were welcome revivers.
Due to the calm sea conditions, we were able to view not only the seal colony at the entrance to Doubtful Sound, but also to do a bit of a trawl around in the Tasman Sea, and we appreciated the grandeur of this fiord as we re-entered in the fading light at day’s end. Shortly afterwards, we enjoyed a banquet of all sorts of wonderful dishes, beautifully prepared by the on board chef and his team. Wines and juices flowed, as did the conversations, and the evening ended with a nature presentation by the on board guide.
Sunday drizzle greeted the morning which provided wonderful reflections and misty scenes like paintings as yet unfinished. At the top of Hall Arm the Captain turned off the engines and we appreciated hearing bird song floating from the shore, the fierceness of the water as it fell sometimes from 600m above us, and generally enjoying Zen moments.
Other highlights included the Captain manoeuvring Fiordland Navigator so close to the cliff that we were able to fill our glasses with water cascading off the sheer rock faces, filtered by the overhanging vegetation. He was able also to bring the boat close enough to shore for us to view Fiordland Crested penguins roosting near their cave.
More than $15,000 has been raised from the sale of tickets to support the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust’s continued monitoring of yellow-eyed penguins on Rakiura / Stewart Island over the next breeding season. Thank you Real Journeys for this wonderful opportunity both to raise funds and to appreciate this world class location.
Friday 31st July, 2015
A yellow-eyed penguin is ready to return to the wild after life-saving care that included a toe amputation at Wellington Zoo.
The endangered hoiho - nicknamed Buster- was taken to the zoo's The Nest Te Kōhanga facility after suffering a bite to the foot.
The injury caused severe bone and tissue damage, and infection of the injury led to inflammation in the bone of its toe, leaving it with a severe limp which had left it unable to walk.
Wildlife and avian specialists led by Veterinary Science Manager Dr Lisa Argilla administered a course of antibiotics, pain relief and anti-inflammatories to reduce the infection and swelling. However, the toe joint had been badly damaged and began to erode.
"In a case like this, we have the options to either try to fuse the joint with a bone graft, or look at amputating the toe," said Dr Argilla. "In consultation with Department of Conservation, we chose to amputate the toe, as a bone graft would have required a much longer stay in hospital."
Buster's inflamed toe wasn't the only complication. As well as suffering from anaemia of chronic disease, where an animal's health continues to struggle as they fight off infection, Buster was close to going through his seasonal moult.
"For surgical procedures with birds, we have to pluck any feathers around the area," said Dr Argilla. "If we had tried to do the bone graft, we would have had to pluck newly grown feathers - which would have meant he was at The Nest Te Kōhanga for ages.
The amputation meant we could avoid plucking feathers, and get him home in a much quicker timeframe.
"It's always a tough call to amputate, but we knew it would give this precious species the best chance to survive and thrive. In the wild, these birds are under the careful eye of the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust and Department of Conservation, so they would be able to respond quickly if Buster ran into trouble in future."
Buster made a swift recovery after the amputation, and within weeks was swimming in a saltwater pool.
"He has been using his foot very well, and has been swimming, walking and preening as he normally would," said Dr Argilla. "We've been in touch with Department of Conservation and the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust to make arrangements to return Buster to his wild home later this week."
Buster will be returned to a beach near Penguin Place, a rehabilitation facility on the Otago Peninsula. His progress will be monitored before deciding on where he will be released to in the wild.
Yellow-Eyed Penguins are one of the rarest penguins in the world and unique to New Zealand. They can be found in the South Island, with nesting sites scattered in the coastal forests, scrub, or dense flax. The population is declining due to land clearing and habitat destruction.
Wellington Zoo was New Zealand's first zoo and is home to more than 500 native and exotic animals.